Ask the Expert: Managing Maternity Pens – Dr. Rob Farruggio, Jefferson Veterinary Clinic

Posted on August 29, 2013 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Rob Farruggio, Jefferson Veterinary Clinic

Q:  As I look at my calf rearing program, I feel like our maternity area may be the weakest link. We really start to see more newborn calf issues as we near the end of the summer. Do you have advice on ways to improve our maternity area?

A:  Raising calves can be the most rewarding part of a dairy farm if done properly.  The life that begins on your farm and the way you raise and nurture it can ultimately be a financial asset to the dairy.

Many problems that arise during the fragile first few weeks can be related back to the first few hours of life. It is well known that calves born in a maternity pen are less likely to become sick when compared to those born in other areas of the farm.

Even when a calf is born in a maternity pen, the calf can still be exposed to infectious agents. Unfortunately, many things can affect this process, including the changing seasons. As we approach the end of the summer, the long sunny days that provided warmth for us to enjoy also have negative effects on to the calf’s environment. Bacteria and other infectious agents grow much more readily during the warm weather. Environmental contamination of bedding or calf-feeding equipment can become even more prevalent during periods of high humidity.

The following are recommended steps to help keep calves healthier during the long hot days of summer:

  1. The maternity area should be well bedded with at least 6 inches of a clean, dry and absorbent material.
  2. The pen should ideally be used as a single-use calving pen rather than as an area for housing groups of cows due to calve.
  3. The cow should be moved from the maternity pen as soon possible to reduce the amount of fecal contamination of the bedding. The placenta should also be removed from the area if possible.
  4. The pens should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. The frequency of the cleaning depends on how many calves have been born and the size of the pen. Ideally, the pen should provide 125 to 175 square feet of space if used for a single cow. The pen should be cleaned more frequently in the summer (as often as every-other day). Discuss with your veterinarian or dairy supply agent which chemical disinfectant would best fit your facility.
  5. In addition to regular cleaning, fly control will also reduce the spread of infectious agents in and around the bedding of the maternity pen.
  6. The pens should be well ventilated to not only be a part of the dairies heat abatement plan, but also to reduce the potential growth of bacteria within the bedding by keeping ambient temperatures down.  It will also aid in reducing the level of moisture within the bedding and the number of airborne infectious agents the calf may be exposed to.
  7. The calf should be removed from the pen within two hours of life. Removing the calf as soon as possible reduces the amount of time the calf has to nurse from the cow since the cow’s teats may be contaminated with bacteria or other infectious agents. In addition, the calf’s natural instinct is to try to stand.  As the calf tries to stand and stumbles over, it has the potential to ingest particles of bedding, fecal material, etc., because its mouth is in close contact with its surroundings.
  8. Dip the navel as soon as possible with strong iodine tincture (7 percent if available). Another effective alternative is a 1:1 ratio mixture of chlorhexidine solution and 70-percent isopropyl alcohol. This is very important because an untreated umbilical cord exposed to an increased environmental load of bacteria is a great way for infectious agents to enter the calf’s bloodstream, which can lead to umbilical infections, joint ill, septicemia, etc.
  9. Calves should be fed high quality colostrum within the first few hours of life and no later than six hours of life. It is important to remember that calves are born without an active immune system. Colostrum should be collected in a very clean manner and tested for quality. The use of a colostrometer or a digital Brix refractometer can assist in determining the quality of colostrum. When fresh or frozen colostrum is not available, it is acceptable to use a high quality colostrum replacer.
  10. All the equipment used for collecting the colostrum and feeding the calf, such as bottles, nipples, or esophageal feeders, should be properly cleaned and disinfected. Recently, the use of chlorine dioxide has become recommended to sanitize the equipment prior to use.
  11. Make sure you have enough properly cleaned equipment by following this rule of thumb:  Have one more set of bottles/esophageal feeders than the highest number of calves born in one day on the dairy.

While it can sometimes seem to be an uphill battle to raise calves, following just a few simple steps at the start of their lives to ensure they are kept clean can be very rewarding. Not only will these actions assist the health of the calves, but it will also assist the cow in transitioning into a healthier lactation by reducing her exposure to the environmental agents that can be the cause of mastitis, metritis, etc.

Have a tough calf question?  Looking for an expert answer?  Email us to submit your question and earn a Calf Care Kit valued at $125 if your question is selected for a future edition of Starting Strong.

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