Color Coded Calf Rearing- Disease Prevention

Color Coded Calf Rearing- Disease Prevention


When the calf is born, their immune system is not fully developed. It is essential for them to absorb high quality colostrum to aid in the development of the immune system and the health of their gut. Environmental cleanliness is crucial to ensure that this newly developing immune system is not overwhelmed with pathogens. Cleanliness in the maternity area, calf processing area, housing, and clean equipment will result in healthy calves.


Maternity Area

It is very important that the maternity area be clean and dry. The calf will best absorb her first meal, and we would prefer that meal to be high quality colostrum and not a mouth full of feces in the calving pen. Do not overcrowd the maternity pen, and keep it clean and dry. Use the “wet knee” test to evaluate if the bedding needs to be changed. Kneel down in several areas in the pen. If your knees come up wet, it is time to change the bedding. Between beddings disinfect the walls, and lime the dirt to help control pathogen levels.



Proper cleaning of equipment is essential in decreasing pathogen levels and managing the health of the calf. Under optimal conditions bacteria growth can double every 20 minutes. It is important to clean, disinfect, and DRY equipment to ensure removal of both biofilm and pathogens. 

The components of milk make it difficult to clean equipment. Fat needs to be removed, but if at first you use water that is too hot, the protein will get baked into the sides of the bottles, nipples, and buckets creating a biofilm where pathogens can grow. This isn’t a layer of slime, it is microscopic, but will still house pathogens and contaminate milk or colostrum, resulting in sick calves.

If cool water is used to rinse the equipment the protein will rinse out, but the fat will adhere to the sides leaving a greasy layer where pathogens can also grow.  To avoid these situations, follow these 6 steps to clean calf equipment properly.

  1. Rinse with warm water (90-100° F or 32.2-37.7° C). This step removes the protein.
  2. Soak in moderately hot water (130-135°F or 54.4-57.2° C) and a chlorinated alkaline detergent. The soaking allows time for the water to penetrate bacteria, the moderately hot water helps remove the fat, and the detergent works on the fat and pathogens that do not thrive at a high pH.
  3. Scrub with hot water (>145° F or >67.7° C) and a chlorinated detergent. Scrubbing helps break up the biofilm and remove the bacteria.
  4. Rinse with warm water and a chlorine dioxide solution. Preform an acid rinse weekly to remove calcium build up.
  5. Thoroughly dry equipment. Pathogens need a moist environment to live in, remove the moisture and they cannot grow.
  6. Sanitize just before use with a 50 ppm solution of chlorine dioxide.


Chlorine dioxide is safe for calves and people. It does not form potentially hazardous by-products like free chlorine does and is used in human drinking water. At the rate of 50 ppm chlorine dioxide can be sprayed on bottle nipples and cause no problems when ingested by the calf. Chlorine dioxide has been the preferred sanitizer in the calf industry for the past 6 years. When compared to bleach it has a shorter contact time, achieves a wider range of pH, and kills a broader spectrum of pathogens, including Crypto. 



Calf housing should follow an “all in – all out” protocol to prevent passing disease from calves leaving to those entering. Follow these steps for cleaning hutches after the removal of the calf. A hand-held foamer is recommended for cleaning hutches, carts, and trailers used for transporting calves. Pressure washers can spread disease, a hand-held foamer will help restrict the flow of chemicals and maintain a proper pH.

  1. Clean up the large filth like manure, bedding or feed.
  2. Soak with water.
  3. Alkaline foam cleaning using an 11-13 pH.
  4. Soak with water.
  5. Rinse with water.
  6. Acid foam cleaning using a 3-4 pH.
  7. Soak with water.
  8. Rinse with water.
  9. Another good time to use chlorine dioxide.


Keep hutches dry and well bedded to continue to prevent disease. The knee test can be used here once again. If your knees get wet when you kneel down, so will the calf.  Wet areas promote the growth of bacteria and other pathogens.  The calf needs to stay warm and dry to aid it in fighting off disease.



Cleanliness in the calf area will help with preventing disease. It is also important for employees to work for the youngest animals to the oldest, change gloves after working with a sick calf, and disinfect boots and equipment regularly. Keep gloves readily available, and implement protocols that make it habitual and easy for employees to follow cleanliness practices.


Written by: Mariah Gull, M.S.


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