COLUMNISTS

Clean environment helps pre-weaned calves thrive

Jackie McCarville
One of the most important factors for physical well-being and a healthy environment in calves is cleanliness.

We have all seen articles on the long-term effects of pneumonia, scours, and sickness in pre-weaned calves. We also know how much it costs to raise a calf from birth to calving. Getting pre-weaned calves off to the best start possible is important financially. 

One of the most important factors for physical well-being and a healthy environment in calves is cleanliness. What does cleanliness mean when talking about calves? It can be broken down into 3 different categories: housing, clean feeding practices, and tools to determine cleanliness. 

Let us start by talking about housing. Pre-weaned calves spend more than half of their time lying down. Regardless of the season, bedding is important to soak up liquids, provide insulation, and allow for nesting.

Clean bedding can reduce the chance of pathogens entering the not yet healed navels of neonatal calves. Calves should have 20 to 25 pounds of bedding with a depth of 12 inches, with proper drainage below the bedding source. We can utilize kneeling on the bedded surface and rocking back and forth to determine if the bedding provided is clean and dry.

Providing proper ventilation is also important for pre-weaned calves. Having proper ventilation removes organisms from the environment, lessens dust, removes harmful odors, and removes extra moisture in the winter and heat in the summer. If housing calves indoors, it is recommended to have a ventilation rate of 100 cubic feet per minute (cfm) in hot weather, 50 cfm in mild, and 15 cfm in cold weather. Without proper ventilation, calves are prone to reduced feed intake, impaired immune response, and more prone to respiratory problems.

What equipment are you cleaning when it comes to calves? Biofilms form on equipment that is improperly cleaned. Bacteria need nutrients in the form of carbohydrates and proteins in order to survive (think milk and milk replacer) and the thin layer of biofilms provide a great medium for bacterial growth.

We must remember anything we use to manage the pre-weaned calf should be properly cleaned. This includes any equipment or tool that may come into contact with the pre-weaned calf including buckets, bottles, pails, mixing equipment, esophageal feeders, thermometers, ear taggers, hutches, trucks, and trailers. 

Keep in mind plastic or rubber feeding equipment can develop scratches which house microbes. This feeding equipment will need to be replaced more frequently than stainless steel products.

Just physically cleaning isn’t enough, we need to also use a chemical. All chemical cleaners are not the same, and we must remember their purpose. Detergents are known for breaking up organic deposits such as fat and protein. Disinfectants are for killing microorganisms. Sanitizers reduce the number of microorganisms but don’t kill completely. Chemicals should not be considered a substitute for a good cleaning routine.

You might be asking how clean is clean? A luminometer, or ATP meter, has become very popular in testing cleanliness on farms. All living cells possess ATP and can be measured by relative light units (RLU). The higher the RLU, the more contaminated the area is. 

Using an ATP meter can be a great way to benchmark your cleaning protocols and is used to determine the effectiveness of the cleaning process. Keep track of what your RLU numbers are before cleaning and those numbers should be lower after cleaning. 

Dr. Don Sockett, from the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, shared at the 2019 European Calf Conference a guideline to assess cleanliness of calf feeding equipment and environment utilizing the luminometer and RLUs (see image). 

Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, shared at the 2019 European Calf Conference a guideline to assess cleanliness of calf feeding equipment and environment utilizing the luminometer and RLUs.

The following guidelines should be used to assess the cleanliness of calf feeding equipment, drinking water and the calf’s environment. These guidelines may change over time as field data is accumulated and analyzed

Utilizing housing recommendations, cleaning and sanitation protocols, and tools created to help determine cleanliness are great ways to insure pre-weaned calves have the best possible chance to  establish a strong foundation while minimizing disease and costs.

Jackie McCarville

Jackie McCarville is the agriculture educator for Green County Extension.

UW Extension