Some Dirty Words in Calf Care

by Kelly Driver, MBA

Assuring that we are giving every calf the best opportunity for excellent health and growth is the shared goal of calf care teams around the world. But the challenges presented to those teams are often surrounded by some “dirty” words or biological challenges that exist on nearly every dairy farm. Let’s take a look at some of the more frequent challenges.

Organic matter is a natural concern in calf care as it harbors bacteria and parasites, as well as provides a breeding ground for these organisms. Organic matter is defined as compounds that have come from the remains of organisms such as plants and animals and their waste products. In terms of calf raising, we immediately think about manure, milk, and feed deposits on surfaces in the calf’s environment, beginning at birth.

Biofilms 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. The surface may even develop a slimy feel. Biofilms provide a great 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. 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.

Cryptosporidium parvum is one of the most common parasites in dairy facilities. It most often shows up in calves between 7 to 28 days of age and initially presents as lethargic, weak calves. Crypto is a protozoan parasite that at one stage of its life cycle forms egg-like bodies called oocysts, which contaminate everything they come in contact with – bedding, feed, water, and the hands and clothes of the calf raiser. Once the crypto organisms are ingested by a calf, they destroy the inner lining of the large intestine. This allows milk to pass through nearly undigested and the resulting diarrhea will typically be a yellowish to white color and may appear foamy or contain blood, mucus or bile.

Cryptosporidium oocysts thrive in wet environments, like wet bedding and calving areas. The oocysts can live for up to a year in cool moist conditions and are resistant to drying and freezing. The parasite normally exists on most, if not all, dairy farms where calves are raised. Diligent attention and sanitation of the calving area and clean, dry, sanitized plastic calf housing and feed equipment can help to minimize the risk of infection. Mortality is generally low with c. parvum, but morbidity is high and the calves will have a slower growth rate than unaffected calves.  Rota virus and Coronavirus are both of major concern as they are also most prevalent at 7-14 days of age and are often associated with a calf dealing with a high Crypto load.

Bacteria load can be easily measured by testing equipment used every day on farm for feeding, transporting and housing newborn calves. It is easy to check ourselves for cleanliness using an ATP meter and swabs that measure bacteria loads. The goal is a score under 100 and a reading under 10 is exceptional. If your farm does not have a meter, consult with your herd veterinarian.

Here are a couple examples of areas to check:

Swabbing the inside of the plastic calf bottle, a common area to find biofilm and bacteria on farm.
This tested 14, which means the cleaning is being done well.
Swabbing the grain bucket in a young calf’s hutch.
The reading of 9343 indicates that this bucket needs a thorough cleaning and disinfecting before being used anymore. It is also possible that the plastic worn out and the bucket needs to be replaced, which is as simple as calling the nearest Calf-Tel dealer.

Ammonia gas is very harmful for a calf’s natural defense system in the trachea. Many positive conditions exist in calf housing for the microbial activity that releases ammonia gas. Urine provides both nutrients and liquid, the bedding material often provides a favorable pH environment, and calves warm the soiled bedding when resting.

Tiny hair-like fingers or cilia line the trachea, working to push foreign materials that the calf has inhaled up and out of the trachea. These cilia work in a wave action and serve as a defense system against respiratory infections. But persistent exposure to relatively low ammonia levels, which disrupts the wave pattern of the cilia leaves calves at a higher risk for bacterial respiratory illness. Slowing down ammonia causing bacteria is as simple as clean dry bedding in well-drained calf housing areas.  If you unsure if your calf bedding is dry enough, kneel in the bed for one minute, if your knees get wet, it is not dry enough to slow down ammonia production and help protect calves from respiratory disease.

Coccidiosis is a digestive disease in dairy calves and heifers that is most often found from 1 month to 1 year of age. The protozoa can be prolific in facilities with poor cleanliness, use of bedded pack management, or inconsistent feeding additive (coccidiostat) usage across pens. The Eimeria protozoa starts off similar to other digestive parasites with the animal consuming the protozoa egg or oocyst.  This consumption takes place by various routes including eating contaminated feed, bedding or water; grooming themselves or other animals; or licking their contaminated surroundings (walls, gates, feeders, etc.), according to Dr. Matt Akins at University of Wisconsin at Madison.  The oocyst has a very protective outer wall that resists breakdown from chemical and physical action, and can be viable in a moist, warm environment for several months to years. Similar to other diseases, maintaining heifers in similar age groups, using all in/all out management, and cleaning of pens/feeders/waterers between moves can help reduce pathogen loads.  In addition to maintaining a clean environment, most operations use a coccidiostat in their feed mix to control the protozoa in the heifer’s digestive tract. This allows the heifer to develop immunity to the protozoa while controlling protozoal levels to minimize coccidiosis, according to Dr. Akins.

Flies. Stable flies, house flies, and blow flies are the most common types found around dairies. They are labeled “filth flies” because they prefer moist conditions and like to lay their eggs in manure, decaying organic matter, spilled or spoiled feedstuffs, and damp bedding. Other common flies that are more often found in pastures or open areas can include horse flies, deer flies, face flies, horn flies, and even mosquitoes. Several of these pests are biting flies that require a “blood meal” and can be quite disturbing to calves.

It is important to develop an integrated pest management plan (IPM) to maximize fly control efforts at your operation, focusing on three key areas:

  1. Sanitation
  2. Biological control
  3. Chemical control

Both house and stable flies breed in manure, decaying silage, and moist bedding or feedstuffs, making sanitation the key management practice to minimizing the population. Since the house fly life cycle is just 10 days, cleaning everything possible weekly is most desirable and removing any spilled or leftover feeds daily is also helpful.

Another important sanitation measure is keeping the bedding in the calf housing area dry. Some farms switch to sand, wood shavings or sawdust as bedding material instead of straw in the warmer months of the year. Opening rear doors and vents on Calf-Tel hutches or pens to encourage airflow will also help keep the bedding dry.

Hygiene Program for Calf Housing and Equipment

There are two major areas of concern; the pieces that you use to feed calves (buckets, bottles, nipples and mixing utensils) and the housing units. Both are key to keeping calves healthy.

Recommended Steps for Cleaning Calf Contact Surfaces:

  1. The initial step is to remove the interfering agents like organic load and biofilms by cleaning the visible signs of organic matter with warm water at a temperature of 90oF.
  2. Scrub with a chlorinated alkaline detergent (CAD) at no less than 130oF water. The CAD helps to breakdown the biofilms and fats that many organisms thrive in. The use of a CAD will also create a higher pH (11-12), which aids the destruction of certain organisms and the removal of the biofilms that can interfere and reduce the effectiveness of your germicide used to disinfect.
  3. Rinse with a solution of Chlorine Dioxide (ClO2)/Acidified Sodium Chlorite (ASC) at a minimum of 50-75 ppm per research completed by Dr. Don Sockett, DVM, Ph.D. at of the University of Wisconsin. (Dairy Herd Management) We have seen excellent results at 240-250 ppm if any of the above steps are marginal.
  4. Let it dry.
  5. Rinse a second time with a solution of 50ppm chlorine dioxide (ClO2)/acidified sodium chlorite (ASC) less than two hours before use, allowing a minimum of one minute of contact with the equipment. This is especially important with nipples/bottles or buckets for milk. Not all germicides are the same. It is important to test your germicide regularly with an approved method for the specific product you are using to ensure you have the germicidal killing power needed to achieve your calf hygiene goals, whether applying it by brush, spray or foaming action.

(Source: James Umphrey, Regional Sanitation Advisor for ABS Global Inc.)

Hygiene is always a critical piece in the puzzle of maintaining healthy calves. Keeping calf care utensils and equipment clean is critically important to assuring the health of the youngest herd members. At Calf-Tel, we are passionate about helping assure calves a successful start. You can learn more about these “dirty words” and others in Calf-Tel’s Calf Corner!

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

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