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Dairy Focus: Calves and Cleanliness a Vital Health Relationship

J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist
Sanitation is one of the most important components of keeping calves healthy.

By J.W. Schroeder, Dairy Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

Raising healthy calves is a challenging and rewarding job. Calf raisers are responsible for the dairy herd's future, the next generation of milk cows.

Minimizing death and disease losses in the calf herd can save hundreds of dollars per replacement animal raised.

Sometimes the most obvious steps are the easiest to overlook because we assume the work is being done just as we intended.

One of the most vial components is sanitation.

Just rinsing a nursing bottle rather than cleaning it thoroughly is very tempting. We figure that all the “germs” can be killed with a good soak with bleach. The bad news is that, in most cases, bleach actually cannot kill the “germs.”

The recipe is straightforward. (You can find guidelines from the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association’s Gold Standards.) One of the first steps is: Wash equipment after every use, including bleach in the wash water. Soak with bleach and hot water occasionally to back up an effective washing program. The proper soaking dilution of household bleach is about 2.7 cups in 5 gallons of water.

If equipment is completely clean, chlorine bleach does have an excellent kill rate for bacteria. Notice the words “completely clean.” If a biofilm exists on the interior surface of a nursing bottle, for example, it acts as a buffer between the bleach’s active ingredient (sodium hypochlorite) and the bacteria.

According to Sam Leadley, calf and heifer management consultant at Attica (N.Y.) Veterinary Associates, biofilm can develop easily on equipment that is not cleaned completely after every use. He notes that washing feeding buckets every morning and then just rinsing after the afternoon feeding allows protein, fat and lactose particles to stick to the surfaces. Then bacteria cement themselves to equipment surfaces using these residues.

Once the bacteria are cemented onto the equipment, they produce organic compounds to protect themselves. These films often are so thin that we can’t see or feel them. However, be assured that they can be present unless you have a good four-step washing procedure that is followed after every use.

Here is what is recommended as an essential four-step cleaning procedure:

  • Use a lukewarm prewash rinse.
  • Brush the equipment, using hot water, soap and bleach for the wash.
  • Use an acid rinse.
  • Allow the equipment to dry thoroughly between uses.

At low levels, these bacteria are not necessarily harmful to young calves. However, you frequently find high bacterial concentrations in milk, milk replacer or colostrum that come in contact with bottles, tube feeders and pails that are cleaned just by soaking them in bleach.

NDSU Agriculture Communication - Oct. 17, 2012

Source:J.W. Schroeder, (701) 231-7663,
Editor:Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,
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