A couple of weeks ago, I trained employees at a mid-size dairy farm. The place was well-run and the calf feeder had full support and trust of the farm owner. The guy liked his calves and cared about doing a good job. What surprised me about the farm was the lack of immediate hygiene. When I walked in, I could see a couple of tube feeders with bags still attached to them waiting to be washed, a bottle that – judging by the white chunks inside – had been used to mix up milk replacer – and a calf puller in the corner showing signs of a recent calving. I am sure all of this equipment was washed eventually, but the bacteria had a big head-start.

Just as every public bathroom door reminds us to wash our hands, we too should have daily reminders for ourselves and our employees to wash equipment “after use.” It can feel redundant and unnecessary, but hygiene and cleanliness around young calves can make the difference between a healthy replacement and a dead one.

Hygiene basics

The best way to begin your assessment is to start small and start at the beginning. Spend some time observing your employees as they go about their newborn routine. Pay attention to when things are cleaned and how well items are washed. Each item used in interaction with a neonate should be washed inside and out, first in cool water, then in hot water with acid wash, set out to air-dry and finally disinfected just before use. If you find issues with washing protocols, consider re-training your employees or using disposable items such as paper cups for dipping navels or single-use bags for feeding colostrum. These eliminate the need for washing and guarantee that a clean item is used each time.

Newborn calf hygiene

When a calf is born, it needs to be moved to a clean dry pen as soon as possible and dried off with a clean towel. As you observe, keep in mind the three ways infection can enter a calf’s body:

  • Orally (through the mouth)
  • Nasally (through the nose)
  • Umbilically (through the navel)

Make sure you address all three areas in your protocols.

The devil is always in the details; small things such as making disposable gloves available in the maternity pen can make a big difference. Locating them here reduces the probability that the bloody gloves used to pull the calf out will be the same ones used to clean the calf’s mouth.

Check to see how your dipping practice stacks up. Make sure your dipping cup has a back-flow protection to prevent using the same liquid on multiple calves or, better yet, use a fresh cup with new liquid every time to prevent the risk of spreading disease. Equally important is the precision of the application. Emphasize in your protocols that only the navel should be dipped, and the belly should be protected from splashing. Improper application can lead to unwanted irritation and possible risk of infections if navel dipping is not thorough.

A recent story illustrates how important cleanliness is and how easily it can be overlooked. A dairy was experiencing almost an 80 percent morbidity in young calves; imagine scours in almost every hutch. The owner was desperate to solve his problem and was looking for more medications to do so. This only served as a Band-Aid on the underlying problem. Eventually, he discovered that one of the calf feeders would start feeding the sick calves first then move onto the newborns using the same tube feeder, spreading disease as he went. The moral of the story is to always feed calves with a new pair of gloves and a clean and sanitized nipple or tube feeder.

Colostrum hygiene

Feeding colostrum is the ultimate act of delivering immunity that will protect the calf for the next 10 days until it has the ability to build its own (active) immunity. To be effective, colostrum should be fed within the first half-hour after birth, at 105ºF, containing more than 200 grams of Immunoglobulin G in the 4 quarts being fed in one meal. Colostrum, just like milk, contains bacteria. It is the amount of bacteria fed to the calf in the colostrum which has the ability to make or break the effectiveness of the colostrum feeding, so it is up to us to prevent bacterial growth. While it sounds like a daunting task, preventing bacterial growth in colostrum boils down to three things:

  1. Do not introduce new bacteria to the colostrum.
  2. Do not allow existing bacteria to grow.
  3. If you know you have a bacterial problem, pasteurize.

Keeping new bacteria away from colostrum starts with collection. Properly wash the udder and milk the cow. Collect only into a properly washed and sanitized stainless steel milking bucket with a lid. Decide where the colostrum will go from here. Would it be best for you to use a bottle, reusable tube-feeding bag or a sterile disposable bag? Any reusable item will require a proper washing and sanitizing cycle prior to use. To save time and eliminate worries, consider using a disposable bag that remains thin with a large surface area to accelerate cooling/heating.

Preventing existing bacteria from rapidly multiplying is a matter of time and temperature. Bacteria doubles every 20 minutes at room temperature. In order to prevent growth, we need to limit how much time the colostrum spends at temperatures above freezing. Even storing colostrum in a refrigerator shouldn’t be done for more than 24 hours as bacteria will continue to grow.

Colostrum should be either used or stored immediately after collection; especially with the upcoming warm weather, it is dangerous to let colostrum sit around on the parlor floor. Preferred storage is in forced air freezer and in thin containers designed to facilitate fast cooling.  Warming colostrum to feeding temperature should be even faster. Make sure your system for managing colostrum is designed around rapid cool-down and warm-up in order to reduce the bacterias’ window of opportunity.

If you are concerned about certain diseases, pasteurization can be a good option for you. Remember that pasteurization of colostrum, unlike pasteurization of calf milk, occurs at 140ºF for 60 minutes. Beware of pooling colostrum in order to pasteurize it; this method creates a lot of mediocre-quality colostrum and doesn’t allow you to manage colostrum to its highest potential. Ideally, pasteurize in the container you will be feeding out of to prevent any post-pasteurization contamination.

We know now that a heifer which gets sick in early calfhood is more susceptible to developing pneumonia, being treated later on and never reaching her full potential. While this might have been acceptable in the past, in today’s day and age, when each cow is expected to produce more than 100,000 pounds and dairy producers spend money on genomically testing animals in order to eliminate those with the lowest potential, we cannot overlook something as basic as hygiene that reduces the calf’s ability to achieve her full potential.

Andy Beckel is a calf consultant with Golden Calf Company. For more information, email him at andy@goldencalfcompany.com