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Dairy calves need cleanliness

Neil Broadwater, Regional Extension Educator-Dairy

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:

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

4.4 6.5 6.5 52.2 60.5 62.1
Respiratory problems 1.8 2.7 2.2 21.3 24.5 21.3
Put down due to lameness/injury -- 0.1 0.1 -- 0.6 0.5
Calving problems -- -- 0.4 -- -- 4.1
Joint or naval problems 0.2 0.1 0.2 2.2 1.0 1.7
Trauma 0.2 -- -- 2.4 -- --

Lack of coordination or severe depression

-- 0.0 0.1 -- 0.4 0.4
Poison -- 0.0 0.0 -- 0.3 0.1
Other known reasons 1.0 0.7 0.3 11.7 6.4 2.9
Unknown reasons 0.8 0.7 0.7 10.2 6.3 6.9
TOTAL 8.4 10.8 10.5 100 100 100

**Dairy operations had at least 30 dairy cows.

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:

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.

For further information on how you can improve raising healthy calves, visit the Dairy Extension website at Also view the article The “ABCDEFGs” For Healthy Calves.

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