April 26, 2021 at 7:05 p.m.
Let’s start with the maternity pen, often a high-traffic area on the farm and the environment a newborn calf is exposed to first. As new cows and calves come in, people walk through the bedding to help the cow give birth, and then to retrieve calves and follow up with any medications and day one protocol necessities. High traffic can translate into pathogen overload and greater disease risk.
When a calf is born, it has an underdeveloped immune system, which means it has a slow and weak response to the pathogens it encounters. The calf’s immune system grows more robust with time, but on day one, hour one, it is extremely weak. So, if there is a high level of pathogens in the maternity pen, there is a good chance those pathogens will overwhelm the underdeveloped immune system. As I mentioned in my previous article, a calf’s umbilicus is an open highway to their body. If a calf is born into mud, manure or a puddle, that umbilicus is dragging all that bacteria with it. Those pathogens can travel into the calf’s blood stream, setting the calf up for health problems and creating a long road ahead for extra care and costly treatments.
During times of high calving, especially in wet seasons, develop a sanitation plan with your calf team. Talk to them about how often to clean and bed the maternity area and make sure everyone knows what ideal calving conditions look like. Teaching your employees the knee test (30 seconds of kneeling on the bedding to make sure knees are not wet or cold after) is a quick and easy way to judge if the bedding is deep and dry enough for calves.
Additionally, the timing of cleaning and re-bedding is important. Plan for how many calvings there should be in between re-bedding the maternity pen. Calvings-per-cleaning is a better approach compared with setting a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. In times of heavy calving, it helps to ensure the area is never overwhelmed with pathogens. Also, your bedding plan does not have to stay consistent throughout the year. If you know you tend to deal with higher scouring incidents in periods of wet weather (like springtime), then you may need to increase bedding frequency during those months.
Once you have protocols in place for the maternity area, it is also imperative to create sanitation protocols for moving newborn calves. If you use a wheelbarrow or other means of calf transportation, sanitize between calves or as often as possible as this equipment can harbor bacteria. Even if a calf is only going to be in the transport for a few minutes, that is plenty of time for pathogens to enter the nasal, oral or navel pathway and infect a calf.
Similar to the maternity pen, plan for cleaning calf pens or hutches. Outdoor hutches, especially in springtime, tend to get wet and muddy, particularly in front of the hutch. As snow melts and rain comes down, this muddy area becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. Drainage is key when configuring where to put hutches on your farm. Ideally, you want to have hutches sloped so water drains away from the hutch. Putting down gravel can help keep calves out of standing water and keep bedding drier. In any calving environment, having a bit of a slope so water and urine drain away from the calves will help keep them clean and dry. Additionally, talk with your team about when it is time to re-bed the calves (the knee test applies here too).
The goal is to set up your calves for success, and it starts in the maternity pen, especially during times of less-than-ideal weather. Write down and share standard operating procedures for maintaining clean maternity pens, transportation equipment and calf hutches and pens. Be cognizant of how you and others can mitigate the movement of pathogens. These fundamental, occasionally under-appreciated protocols will go a long way in preventing April showers from turning into calf scours.
Ellen is the First Defense regional sales and marketing manager for Wisconsin and Minnesota. She is a problem solver who loves walking calf hutches and diagnosing protocol drift. A great day is a day spent helping dairy and beef farmers keep their baby calves healthy. Ellen can be reached at [email protected].
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