One of the best ways to keep calves healthy and growing is to limit their exposure to harmful bacteria. Even when calves who are exposed to disease pathogens do not become ill, they still exert valuable energy to fight off the disease and this impacts growth and ultimately costs money.
"When calves are exposed to fewer environmental challenges, they have more energy to utilise toward feed conversion and weight gain," explains Christie Underwood, Ph.D., calf and heifer specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition. "By reducing their exposure, we can help keep calves healthy, but also keep their energy focused on growth."
While most facilities have sanitation protocols in place, ensuring they are implemented and effective is key to maintaining a healthy calf environment focused on growth. Underwood recommends reviewing facilities on a regular basis, preferably at least once a month.
To look beyond the surface and truly analyse the cleanliness of your facility, Underwood points out four important areas to consider:
Cleaning and sanitising steps. Are employees spraying and wiping down items in one step? This might leave the item looking clean. However, harmful bacteria can still be lurking on the surface. Items must be cleaned of all organic matter (dirt, faeces, etc.) before a cleaning solution can reach the bacteria and successfully sanitise the surface. To effectively reduce pathogen loads, be sure employees use 2 separate steps to clean and sanitise.
Equipment that needs attention. When evaluating cleaning and sanitisation 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 oesophageal feeders. Don't forget to routinely sanitise cleaning tools as well.
Calf morbidity and mortality rates. High incidences could point to lurking bacteria and also be an indicator that cleaning protocols aren't being implemented correctly, or 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 mortality should be less than 5% and morbidity should be less than 25% under 60 days of age.
Third party audits. Bringing in an outside expert, such as a Purina Animal Nutrition Calf and Heifer specialist, 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 to reduce pathogen exposure through stringent sanitation protocols, calf raisers can have healthier calves that utilise more energy toward growth. A recent study evaluating cleaning and sanitation methods showed that calves housed in properly cleaned and sanitised 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," says Underwood.
Emmy Koeleman studied Animal Sciences at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She is the editor of Dairy Global and All About Feed.