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Hygiene key to optimising calf environment (April 22)

We share just some of the highlights from a recent #Calfmatters presentation at Dairy-Tech 2022, which took a closer look at the importance of optimising the calf environment to minimise the risk of disease.


Producers and calf rearers know the importance of colostrum management and feeding protocols when it comes to protecting calf health and ensuring they get off to the best possible start.

But the calf environment – both in terms of housing and feeding – also plays a key role in keeping disease in check as well as keeping growth rates on track. And it’s an area that’s often overlooked, according to Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health vet Becca Cavill. “Producers know that following colostrum protocols, to ensure newborn calves receive enough good-quality colostrum within the first 24 hours of life, is key to maximising passive immunity to pathogens. But housing and feeding hygiene also have important roles to play in reducing the risk of health- and growth-limiting disease,” she says.

Dr Cavill and Livestock Management Systems’ Jamie Robertson spoke about ‘Fine-tuning heifer rearing’ at Dairy-Tech 2022, and their #Calfmatters presentation focused on several areas where producers can often make improvements when it comes to the calf-rearing environment and hygiene.

“Hygiene in calving pens and calf housing is important and, as with colostrum feeding, putting protocols in place is essential to reduce the disease risk presented by the environment,” says Mr Robertson.

Scrupulously clean

Calving pens should be scrupulously clean. “From the minute the calf ‘lands’ the clock starts ticking to ensure she has a healthy and efficient rearing period, leading to a long and productive life.”

“Even before the calf is born, producers can take steps to push the balance in its favour. Stress – from poor hygiene and housing – will put the calf under additional pressure. If she meets a disease challenge, this stress will reduce her resilience and make her more susceptible to pathogens in the environment.” Hygiene is also key to good calf accommodation. Pens should offer sufficient space, dry bedding, ventilation and access to clean water.

But thorough deep cleaning is essential – annually, between batches and certainly following an outbreak of scours – and is the foundation to creating a ‘safe’ environment. Clean straw or fresh air cannot mitigate the impact of disease-harbouring dirt and faeces. Cleaning before disinfecting is vital because organic matter can deactivate disinfectants and render them less effective at killing disease-causing pathogens that could be lurking in the environment.

Cosy calves: clean and deep bedding is essential

“First, remove all organic matter – and remember this isn’t possible without getting into the corners with a shovel and brush. So get off the machinery you’re using to muck out,” says Mr Robertson. “Hurdles, gates, walls and floors should then be soaked, using detergent if necessary, to get them deep cleaned. Power washing can also help to remove all visible organic matter.”

Appropriate disinfectant

Only then, once thoroughly and properly cleaned, should a disinfectant be applied. “Producers should also ensure the disinfectant is appropriate – not all will kill all pathogens, such as cryptosporidiosis, so discuss this with your with vet. And ensure it’s applied at the correct dilution rate. Bear in mind too that leaving pens to dry is also really important in reducing disease challenge,” says Dr Cavill.

A low-pressure spray should be used for the final wash down, and accommodation should be allowed to dry thoroughly. “Increase ventilation rates, and use squeegees, to speed up this process, if necessary.” After all this time and effort to ensure calf housing is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, producers should also pay attention to boot washing.

“It’s vital to establish a barrier between dirty and cleaned areas, to avoid undoing all your hard work and putting calves at increased risk of disease.” Good hygiene also extends to feeding and feeding equipment. “We like to see ‘calf kitchens’ – and we often do on well-run units,” says Dr Cavill.

“They should be designed for purpose. If they’re easy to use, buckets, teats and mixing utensils will be cleaned thoroughly with little additional effort. If a job is easy to do, it’ll get done well,” she adds. “That adage extends to preparing milk feeds too.”

Mr Robertson’s recent work looked at increasing the efficiency of feed and labour within calf-rearing enterprises by optimising the rearing environment and calf management, as part of Northern Ireland’s Optihouse Project. One of its key aims is to gain a better understanding of conditions in calf-rearing facilities in Northern Ireland.

“This project has provided some invaluable on-farm data, regarding bacterial counts found in the environment and feeding equipment of calves, which was shared with producers during the Dairy-Tech presentation. Although many units had bacterial counts (colony-forming units per ml) well within an acceptable range, others massively exceeded target levels, sometimes into the millions, highlighting some of the heavily contaminated environments these already vulnerable animals are expected to thrive in.”

Being aware of the disease-causing pathogens in the calf environment and how to reduce their presence with thorough cleaning and disinfection – be that the calving pen, calf accommodation or feeding equipment – ensures producers can take steps to implement and improve hygiene protocols to keep pathogens in check and calves healthy.

“The good news is that good hygiene often doesn’t require huge investment – just time and greater focus on attention to detail – and huge improvements can be made with minimal capital outlay,” adds Dr Cavill. “So take a closer look at your calves’ environment and cleaning and disinfecting protocols to see where small changes could possibly result in some big wins – and healthier calves.” |

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