March 27, 2021 at 8:05 p.m.
Pathogens, just like humans, look for an environment to thrive in. So when a new calf hits the ground, pathogens seek the roadway presented to them into the calf’s blood stream where they can prosper. A calf’s navel acts as a highway between the outside world and her bloodstream. When that highway is open, pathogens can easily overtake a calf, and it is up to us to help that calf close the highway.
Calves are born with an underdeveloped immune system. This means calves have a slow and weak response to pathogens during their first weeks of life. They are vulnerable and in extra need of protocols that help them prevent pathogens from overloading their immune system. One protocol is dipping navels to help repel and neutralize the bacteria that is already on the umbilicus. It also helps to dry this fresh tissue that is no longer needed because the calf is breathing and functioning on its own and no longer needs the vessels that fed it from its mother. When it comes to dipping navels, 7% iodine is the disinfectant of choice. It is a strong antibacterial with desiccant properties so it will do a good job of disinfecting and drying up the umbilicus.
Having the best disinfectant is step one of dipping navels. Step two is using a clean disinfectant cup. I have seen farmers use throwaway cups or plastic locking bags full of iodine to decrease the chance of spreading pathogens from one calf to the next. But if your farm’s protocol includes something more reusable, make sure it is also sanitized. After a while, iodine dippers that sit out and are not regularly cleaned develop a crusty edge to them, and the very last thing we want is to introduce pathogens to the calf instead of disinfecting the umbilicus.
Step three is making sure the disinfectant fully covers the umbilicus. The best way to make this happen is to dip, not spray, the navel. As previously mentioned, the navel is an open highway from the outside world into the calf’s bloodstream, so it is critical to block off the entire highway. Think of it as a six-lane road. When you spray, you might cover lanes 2-5, but traffic can get through on lanes one and six. On the other hand, when you dip the navel, you cut off the entire roadway. Best practice is to dip and jiggle the cup a little, sloshing iodine on the sides of the navel. Then dip again and again to make sure you get full coverage on that calf’s umbilicus. You should see a little iodine dripping off the end.
Additionally, timing is important when it comes to navel-dipping protocols. Just like we want to get colostrum into the calf as soon as possible, we also want to get a calf’s navel dipped as soon as possible. The goal is to close the blood vessels, kill any present bacteria and then dry out the umbilical cord, basically decreasing any chance that pathogens will enter the navel highway. The calving area also plays a large role in the number of pathogens introduced to a calf. Keeping this pen clean, dry and free of excess manure will help keep the navel area that way too. It’s important to pay attention to maternity area bedding, especially in times of high calving. Rather than cleaning the pen out every so many days, it is good practice to clean it out after a specific number of calvings. This could mean you clean it out every other day, or it could mean you clean it every four days, depending on the calving load.
Pathogens look for an environment they can live and thrive in, but we do not want to make it easy for them. If we view the umbilicus as a highway from the outside world into the calf, we do not want to shut down just one lane, we want to stop traffic completely. The best way to accomplish this is to dip the navel in 7% iodine as soon as possible. If we can reach this goal and keep the maternity pen clean and dry, calves should be ready to thrive in a healthier environment.
Ellen is the First Defense regional sales and marketing manager for Wisconsin and Minnesota. She’s 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].