Young calves are extremely susceptible to disease and should be provided with a clean and sanitary environment to give them the best opportunity to thrive. Evaluating your farm’s cleaning protocols on a regular basis as well as taking bacterial swabs to see what equipment needs a little more TLC is important to maintaining healthy calves.

Although your equipment may look clean, in reality it may be caked with bacteria that you can’t see. Biofilms can accumulate on any surface where moisture is present, which is the case for most equipment used in calf raising. Once a biofilm has formed, it creates a protective outer layer making cleaning efforts more difficult.

When cleaning equipment the following procedures should be followed:

• Pre-rinse: All equipment should be rinsed with lukewarm water before putting it into the wash water to remove organic matter such as milk and manure. This is important because hot water will denature the whey proteins causing them to become sticky and adhere to surfaces. This also will keep your wash water cleaner.

• Wash: Equipment should be washed with water that stays above 120°F. If the temperature is above 120°F, organic matter will be suspended but if the temperature falls below 120°F organic matter will begin to come out of suspension and stick to the equipment you are washing, which could cause the equipment to come out of the wash water dirtier than when it went in. Sticking a thermometer through a piece of Styrofoam so that it floats on the water surface is an easy way to make sure your water temperature stays hot enough. Equipment should be washed with a combination of an alkaline soap and chlorine or a powdered chlorinated detergent to help disperse and remove organic matter from the surface. All surfaces should be scrubbed with a brush or sponge to remove biofilms. Disinfectants and sanitizers are no alternative to some elbow grease!

• Acid rinse: Equipment should be rinsed with acid to lower the pH. Common bacteria causing scours in calves grows best at a neutral pH (pH 7). By lowering the pH, bacteria will be less likely to accumulate in between equipment uses. Do NOT rinse equipment with water after the acid rinse; let the acid solution dry on the equipment to prevent growth of bacteria.

• Dry: Equipment should be allowed to dry because bacteria needs moisture to grow. Ideally equipment should be stored upside down to reduce the risk of reinoculating the equipment with bacteria floating in the air.

All equipment should be washed immediately after use, do not let equipment sit around for hours allowing bacteria to populate and further adhere to surfaces. This will not only create dirtier equipment but will make your job harder when trying to scrub away biofilms.

Disinfectants may also be used on farms but must be used properly in order to be effective. One common disinfectant used on farms is bleach (chlorine). While bleach can help to disinfect equipment, it has some major downfalls. For starters, bleach will not help control cryptosporidium and giardia, two major causes of calf scours. Bleach also will not remove biofilms, another reason why scrubbing is so important, and is easily deactivated by organic matter. A study found the effectiveness of bleach at killing bacteria was 1,000 times lower on surfaces with biofilms. With only 10% of bacteria free floating, leaving 90% of bacteria ensnared on surfaces and biofilms, it is extremely important to find a disinfectant that will help control the bacteria that is commonly found on dairies. Chlorine dioxide is one alternative and is less corrosive than chlorine but must be handled properly and stored in a refrigerator.

Replacing equipment such as esophageal feeders, hoses for automatic calf feeders, and milk buckets on a regular basis is important as well because while cleaning efforts help reduce the amount of bacterial buildup, you will never remove everything and as equipment ages small grooves and scratches will form, making it almost impossible to clean.

Cleaning procedures are imperative to raising healthy calves and will lead to increased average daily gain (ADG) and decreased disease incidence. Make sure that you have written protocols in place on your farm and that your employees understand and follow them.