Dairy calves need cleanliness
May 6, 2005
Raising healthy calves is a challenging job. The dairy farm may have excellent dairy calf raising facilities. It may have nice hutches that are strategically placed by keeping unweaned calves physically separated to prevent spread of disease between calves. The dairy may have an excellent nutrition program for raising calves, using top quality colostrums and feed. The dairy may be working with their veterinarian to incorporate an appropriate vaccination program that fits the farm. If an enclosed calf raising facility is used, the facility may have an excellent ventilation system with proper air exchanges taking place. Yet, something seems to be wrong with the dairy calf raising process on the farm. Too many calves are either dying or unhealthy. What could be the reason?
One very important fundamental of raising healthy calves is “cleanliness.” Calf raisers must be proactive when it comes to cleanliness. Remember, dirty calves become sick calves. And, sick calves should not be an acceptable standard on the dairy farm.
Keeping calves clean is a lot of work. It takes time. It takes someone being responsible on the farm to get it done. There needs to be a consistent, efficient, cost-effective approach to managing for calf cleanliness, everyday.
Why is cleanliness so important if all other calf raising fundamentals are being met? Maintaining a clean environment decreases the number of bacteria and other pathogens that the calf's immune system must overcome. Energy used fighting muddy conditions, dirty pens, and high numbers of bacteria is energy robbed from being available for growth and maturing.
Here are some examples of diseases that can arise, in part, from unsanitary conditions:
- The disease that causes the greatest mortality in young calves, as perceived by the producer, is Scours. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service conducted a study of U.S. dairy farms (see table) to look at changes from 1991 thru 2002 (web site: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/ceah/ncahs/nahms/dairy/dairy02/Dairy02Pt2.pdf). The study was published in June, 2003. According to the study, scours was the biggest problem in 1991, in 1996 and continued to be in 2002. No progress is being made to reduce death by scours. Scours can be caused by bacteria, viruses, protozoa, stress, improper nutrition or any combination of these problems. However, E. coli is the most common cause of scours in calves and is a common inhabitant of the GI tract. The bacteria enter the body when calves ingest manure from infected animals.
Percentage of Total Unweaned Calf Deaths**
|% heifer calves that die||% reason for death|
|Cause of Death||1991||1996||2002||1991||1996||2001|
Scours, diarrhea, or other digestive problems
|Put down due to lameness/injury||--||0.1||0.1||--||0.6||0.5|
|Joint or naval problems||0.2||0.1||0.2||2.2||1.0||1.7|
Lack of coordination or severe depression
|Other known reasons||1.0||0.7||0.3||11.7||6.4||2.9|
**Dairy operations had at least 30 dairy cows.
- Coccidiosis is caused by one-celled parasites that invade the intestinal tract of animals. This disease has been observed in calves 3 weeks of age and older, usually following stress, poor sanitation, overcrowding or sudden changes of feed. Clinical coccidiosis is diagnosed by finding significant numbers of parasites in the feces.
- Salmonella is a common inhabitant of the GI tract of cattle and is present in manure. Calves usually become infected shortly after birth, when manure from infected or carrier animals is ingested. Infections can be caused by contaminated feeds or milk replacer, especially during the summer when high temperatures cause feed spoilage. Salmonella usually affects calves that are greater than two weeks of age; however, it can be seen in calves as young as two days old.
- Cryptosporidium is caused by organisms that lay dormant in manure and soil for up to one year.
- Dairy animals infected with Johne’s disease usually acquire it as calves. Johne’s disease is transmitted when calves ingest contaminated feces or colostrums.
As a result of understanding that these diseases can be spread through unsanitary conditions, one can readily see the importance of keeping calves clean to reduce their exposure to disease causing organisms.
Some cleanliness management practices to consider include:
- Maternity pens -- Keep them clean, sanitized and freshly bedded. Remove all manure, soiled bedding, or other debris from previous birthings. Each cow entering the maternity pen contributes bacteria and infectious agents.
- Clean teats on cow before newborn calf nurses or remove calf from the mother and maternity area immediately after it is born.
- Keep newborn calves clean, dry, and warm.
- Calf pens should be kept clean and well bedded at all times to reduce exposure to infected manure.
- Clean feed and water is important. Prevent manure contamination of the feed and feed area. Colostrum, milk replacer, dry feed and water sources should always be clean.
- Clean, wash, disinfect and dry out individual hutches, stalls or pens between calves.
- Wear clean clothes and boots when working with calves.
- Replace bedding in pens between calves.
- Constantly check the bedding for dryness.
Keeping a clean calf environment can help assure the dairy producer that all other calf management practices will pay off better. It is important to feed a newborn calf colostrum as soon as possible. It is important to provide adequate nutrition and a balanced ration to meet the calf’s requirements. It is important to work with the farm’s veterinarian to develop specific treatment and prevention protocols based on the organisms common in the herd. But, prevention of disease is the key. And, in many cases where calves are getting sick on the farm, the reason is uncleanliness and the calf becoming exposed to and/or ingesting disease-producing organisms. Don’t be afraid to make cleanliness of the calf’s environment a priority. If employees and family members feel there is an obsession for calf and calf facility cleanliness, don’t be influenced to change. It will pay off. Illnesses and deaths of calves need to be kept at a minimum. Maintaining a clean and healthy calf environment will help assure they come into the milking herd as soon as possible and become healthy, high producing cows for the future profitability of the dairy operation.