When It Comes to Calves Keep It Clean

When It Comes to Calves Keep It Clean

By Kelly Driver

We’ve all been there: running late for the next thing we are supposed to be accomplishing in our busy day. It can be very tempting to just rinse out the calf bottles or buckets, turn them upside down on a rack to dry, and move on to our next task. We figure that it can’t be possible for that many bacteria to grow because we do a good job cleaning more often than not. Besides, we will have more time tomorrow, so we will just use some bleach tomorrow after chores and get back on track. It sounds like a good plan. But is it? The reality is a biofilm.

What are biofilms? They are a layer of organic material, including fats and proteins, that stick to any surface and are so thin that they cannot be seen or felt. However, if they are left to grow on calf feeding equipment, we may eventually see a yellowish or tan-colored film that can be scraped with our fingernail or the surface may develop a slimy feel.

Why are they bad? Biofilms are a wonderful place for bacteria to grow and each time the piece of equipment or calf housing is used, the resident bacteria are there to contaminate the calf, perhaps directly through the feed it eats. When calves are exposed to low levels of bacteria repeatedly, it can lead to a scours problem. Bacteria associated with respiratory disease, scours, roto virus and crypto thrive on biofilms. This is why it is so important to use equipment that can actually be easily cleaned, like plastic pens or hutches from Calf-Tel, versus a surface like wood or fiberglass that the bacteria live in.

When do biofilms get started? Simply, when we take a shortcut like the one outlined above where the equipment was not cleaned properly. Biofilms also get established when the prewash rinse water is too hot, causing the whey proteins to bond to the surface, or the wash water may not be hot enough, causing fat particles to stick to the surface. Bacteria will recognize these organic residues on equipment and attach themselves, producing organic compounds designed to protect themselves and stick the bacteria together in matrices. Dr. Sam Leadley of Attica Veterinary Services in New York equates this phase to building biological apartment complexes, which other bacteria then recognize as a nice neighborhood and attach themselves. This leads to a bacterial housing development (Leadley).

But it looks clean. Dr. Don Sockett, veterinary microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin, notes that water is required for almost any part of the cleaning and disinfection process, but water alone will not remove biofilm layers. Cleaning your plastic Calf-Tel hutches or pens with high pressure water may be good to remove soils, but “if your cleaning is not efficiently removing the biofilm layer, you’re really not accomplishing much,” Sockett explains (Dairy Herd Management).

How should calf equipment be cleaned?

  • Clean large particles off
  • Rinse with luke warm water (90oF)
  • Manually wash with a brush for 2-3 minutes using hot water (at least 145oF) mixed with chlorinated alkaline detergent containing an 11-12 pH. Bottles and buckets may be washed in an industrial dishwasher, but nipples must be hand washed to assure proper cleaning.
  • Rinse a second time with warm water (100oF) containing 50 ppm chlorine dioxide
  • Dry.
  • Sanitize with a 50-ppm solution of chlorine dioxide within 2 hours of use. Allow a minimum of 60 seconds of contact.

(Steps from Dr. Don Sockett, WI Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory)

Cleaning plastic hutches, calf pens or calf transporters can be done in much the same way, though Dr. Sockett recommends using a handheld foamer rather than a pressure washer avoid cross contamination in the cleaning process (Dairy Herd Management).

Another reminder is to replace plastic calf bottles, pails and cleaning brushes on a regular schedule. This may be determined through an evaluation of cleaning protocols with the herd veterinarian.

Check the results. Curiosity caused this author to do some testing of plastics used every day on farm for feeding, transporting and housing newborn calves. Armed with an ATP meter and swabs to measure bacteria loads and knowing that the goal is a score under 100 and a reading under 10 is exceptional, let’s follow the calf’s journey.

Swabbing the lid of the bucket milkerSwabbing the lid of the bucket milker used to collect colostrum to test for bacteria.

The milker lid tested 0The milker lid tested 0, meaning the excellent cleaning protocol left no opportunity for biofilm or bacterial growth.

Swabbing the inside of the esophageal tube feederSwabbing the inside of the esophageal tube feeder

The tube feeder tested 14, which is very good.The tube feeder tested 14, which is very good.

Swabbing the inside of the plastic calf bottleSwabbing the inside of the plastic calf bottle, a common area to find biofilm and bacteria on farm

This also tested 14, which means the cleaning is being done well.This also tested 14, which means the cleaning is being done well.

Swabbing the inside of the cart used to transport calves from the maternity area to hutchesSwabbing the inside of the cart used to transport calves from the maternity area to hutches

A reading of 2945 was found on the cart
A reading of 2945 was found on the cart. Remember that the target number for cleanliness is less than 100. Residues of organic matter are also evident in the cart.

Swabbing the inside of a hutch that has only been pressure washed
Swabbing the inside of a hutch that has only been pressure washed and prepared for a newborn calf

The reading is 9060
The reading is 9060, a sure indication that biofilm and bacteria are present here even though it can’t be seen with our eyes.

Swabbing the grain bucket
Swabbing the grain bucket in a young calf’s hutch

The reading of 9343 indicates that this bucket needs a thorough cleaning
The reading of 9343 indicates that this bucket needs a thorough cleaning and disinfecting before being used any more. It is also possible that the plastic is worn out and the bucket needs to be replaced, which is as simple as calling the nearest Calf-Tel dealer.

Lessons learned. It seemed the protocols to collect clean colostrum and feed milk, including disinfecting with chlorine dioxide, were being followed. Then, the calf was transported in a washable plastic calf cart, which admittedly showed some dust and organic residue, but was rinsed with water “about once a week.” While those numbers were unsettling, the numbers from the inside of the calf hutch that had been pressure washed with water only, not disinfected, and awaiting a new calf were staggering. It “looked” clean, but yet there were obvious biofilms present. Then we swabbed the grain pails, which were admittedly just dumped out and fresh grain added. We could not put a timeline on when they were last cleaned or disinfected. The lesson is we can do much better than delivering newborns to a bacteria laden environment simply by following proper cleaning protocols to remove biofilms. After all, the mother cow delivered us a healthy calf. It is up to us to keep it that way.

Kelly Driver has been involved in the New York dairy industry all her life. In addition to raising dairy calves and replacement heifers, she is the Northeast Territory Manager for Calf-Tel. Feel free to contact her at with your calf questions or suggest a topic you would like covered in a future blog.


Dairy Herd Management. (2012, February). Clean calf feeding equipment in six easy steps. Retrieved from

Dairy Herd Management. (2017, May). Calf facilities: clean, clean, clean. Retrieved from

Leadley, Dr. Sam. (Internet). Biofilms threaten calf health. Retrieved from