In the third part of the ‘Calf Health Series’, we take a look at the area of hygiene, biosecurity and early nutrition of young calves.

Preventing calves from becoming sick is one of the many challenges faced by farmers during the busy calving period.

The calf-rearing industry could learn a lot from the cleaning and disinfection procedures adopted by the pig and poultry sectors, where cleansing and disinfection is crucial.

Bacteria and viruses are present in large numbers on all farms, and the diseases they and other germs cause are common and costly.

Without proper cleaning and disinfection, the germ-load will increase in calf buildings – and on equipment – with disease easily spread from calf-to-calf by contamination in their environment.

Remember, that a calf is born with no immunity so no level of hygiene will replace the immunoglobulin passed from dam to off-spring through colostrum administered to the calf at birth.

Early nutrition

Calf nutrition plays an important role in maintaining calf health, a calf should receive 8.5% of its total body weight in colostrum in the first two hours of life. Immunoglobulin absorption reduces dramatically after that.

With this in mind, a calf weighing 35kg should get 3L of colostrum and a 45kg calf should receive 4L. Those feeding levels are crucial for the calf’s future performance.

Once the calf has received adequate colostrum and transition milk, a high-quality milk replacer such as Volac’s Heiferlac should be fed– with its high level of quality protein (26%) and low oil level (16%) – will help promote lean tissue growth and limit body fat deposition.

There are several options for feeding milk replacer, with all having positives and negatives. The most important thing about the chosen method is that it works for your system.

Methods of feeding calves milk replacer:
  • Twice-a-day (TAD) feeding;
  • Ad-lib milk feeding;
  • Computerised feeders.

To allow for the calf to continue to grow and develop it is important that a calf receives a high-quality concentrate.

Calves should have access to clean, palatable starter concentrates from three days-of-age. From three weeks, calves will begin to eat considerable amounts of starter concentrates.

From then on, the higher the quantity of milk fed, the lower the amount of concentrates they will consume; the rumen is usually functioning well by 10-12 weeks-of-age.

calf investment scheme

Hygiene and biosecurity

While feeding the calf is vitally important, so too is minimising the calf’s exposure to pathogens. This can be done in a clean, well-ventilated house, and by washing and cleaning equipment used to feed the calf.

A good cleaning and disinfection routine of all the calf-feeding equipment, pens and beds, along with a  vaccination programme will reduce the infectious burden placed on the calves.

It is essential for everyone working on the farm to understand and fully comply with good standards of hygiene, in order to minimise cross-contamination between different sections of the farm.

Farm staff are the highest-risk spreaders of disease; they can easily transfer pathogens to calves via their hands, boots and clothes. Therefore, footwear should be regularly cleaned and disinfected in footbaths.

Also, regular disinfection of waterproof trousers/pull-ups and overalls must be completed and latex gloves worn while feeding or treating sick calves.

Moreover, a good stockperson will take the time to ensure that the needs of every calf are met, they will notice health problems early and take immediate, appropriate action if things go wrong.

1. Feeding equipment

The washing of feeding equipment is often overlooked. Improper cleaning practices could be cultivating the perfect environment for disease causing bacteria to survive in – ready to contaminate milk or milk replacer at every feeding time, leading to persistent calf scours, bloat and pneumonia.

Improper cleaning practices can lead to the development of what is called a ‘biofilm’. A biofilm is an invisible paper of protein and fat residue that builds up on equipment and surfaces that are not properly cleaned.

A biofilm is usually undetectable to the eye; however, an extreme build up can cause a yellow or white scum to appear and the surface may feel rough or slimy.

Frequent exposure to even just low levels of bacteria can cause a calf to scour, and persistent high rates of scours are often connected to the onset of respiratory problems such as pneumonia.

Every time a piece of equipment is used, resident bacteria release from the biofilm and contaminate the milk or milk replacer, increasing the levels of bacteria which the calf is exposed to.

There are many practices which will reduce the incidence of a biofilm.

These include:
  • Make sure initial rinse water is not too hot;
  • Brush thoroughly;
  • Avoid washing without chemicals;
  • Ensure the main washing water is not too cool;
  • Be aware of damaged equipment;
  • Always dry equipment fully;
  • Use both detergent and disinfectant.

2. Environment

When it comes to calf houses, all-in/all-out should be utilised. However, very few units have the facilities to allow all-in/all-out systems. As a result, bacteria and viruses will accumulate in calf pens.

Therefore, when it comes to pen design, farmers should, as a minimum, be able to empty, clean and disinfect pens prior to new arrivals coming in.

Materials used for calf pens should be easily cleaned and disinfected; materials such as metal or plastic work well in this regard.

The floor of the pen should be free from cracks or pits that are hard to clean. In addition, drinkers and feeders should also be cleaned out regularly.

3. Vaccination

Vaccination can play an important role in the health of a calf; prevention is always better and cheaper than the cure.

But, at the same time, no amount of vaccination will overcome a lack of quality colostrum administered to the calf at birth and subsequent nutrition.

There are several pneumonia vaccines available on the market. Some are for the common bacteria that cause pneumonia, and others are for respiratory viruses that cause pneumonia.

Intranasal vaccines are another option that can be used in young calves to prevent pneumonia and are a great benefit to many calves.

Correctly administering and storing vaccines is important to improve the success of a vaccination programme.

Remember, a healthy calf in a warm, low-disease environment has more energy available for growth.

More information

Volac has been involved in young animal nutrition for the past 40 years and is an innovator in this field.

The company is committed to helping farmers make the most of their calves and has developed a range of specialised milk replacers, which are specifically formulated for modern dairy and beef animals.

For more information, contact a Volac representative today, or visit the Volac website by clicking here