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Keep calves healthy by reducing pathogen exposureKeep calves healthy by reducing pathogen exposure

Most dairy calf facilities have sanitation protocols in place, but ensuring that they are implemented and effective is key to maintaining healthy calves.

March 21, 2016

3 Min Read
Keep calves healthy by reducing pathogen exposure

One of the best ways to keep dairy calves healthy and growing is to limit their exposure to harmful bacteria. Even when calves are exposed to disease pathogens but do not become ill, they still exert valuable energy to fight off disease.

“When calves are exposed to fewer environmental challenges, they have more energy to utilize toward feed conversion and weight gain,” Dr. Christie Underwood, calf and heifer specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition, explained. “By reducing their exposure, we can help keep calves healthy but also keep their energy focused on growth.”


While most dairy calf facilities have sanitation protocols in place, ensuring that they are implemented and effective is key to maintaining a healthy calf environment focused on growth. Underwood recommended reviewing facilities on a regular basis, preferably at least once a month.

To look beyond the surface and truly analyze the cleanliness of a facility, Underwood pointed out four important areas to consider:

1. Cleaning and sanitizing steps. Are employees spraying and wiping down items in one step? This might leave the item looking clean, but harmful bacteria can still be lurking on the surface. Items must be cleaned of all organic matter (dirt, feces, etc.) before a cleaning solution can reach the bacteria and successfully sanitize the surface. To effectively reduce pathogen loads, be sure employees use two separate steps to clean and sanitize.

2. Equipment that needs attention. When evaluating cleaning and sanitization steps, it’s also important to review all of the necessary equipment. Key items to review are the wagon or cart that transports calves from maternity pens to hutches, bottles, buckets, nipples and esophageal feeders. Don’t forget to routinely sanitize cleaning tools as well.

3. Calf morbidity and mortality rates. High incidences could point to lurking bacteria and also may be an indicator that cleaning protocols aren’t being implemented correctly or that the protocols in place aren’t effective and need to be revised. Identifying the source(s) of contamination is crucial to stopping disease spread and reducing morbidity and mortality rates. Industry benchmarks suggest that mortality should be less than 5% and morbidity should be less than 25% for animals under 60 days of age.

4. Third-party audits. Bringing in an outside expert to review facilities and protocols can often uncover problem areas that employees might be overlooking. Outside experts may have dealt with a similar problem on another farm, and they often have access to additional resources that can help solve mysterious health problems and improve sanitation protocols.

By investing a little more time and resources into reducing pathogen exposure through stringent sanitation protocols, calf raisers can have healthier calves that channel more energy toward growth. A recent study evaluating cleaning and sanitation methods showed that calves housed in properly cleaned and sanitized calf hutches had increased average daily gain.

“More work on this area is still needed, but improving the quality of a calf’s environment reduces its exposure to pathogens and results in a healthier calf that will convert feed to weight more efficiently,” Underwood said.

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