ATP Readings: Dirty Jobs on Your Farm – Dr. Rob Farruggio, Jefferson Veterinary Clinic
When dealing with calf health issues, it is common to investigate whether the calf was handled properly in the first few hours of life. This includes moving the calf to a clean dry place within one hour of birth, dipping the navel, feeding clean, high quality colostrum in the first four hours of life, and using a dry cow and/or calf vaccine protocol. On some farms, it is standard procedure to ensure the calf received the quality colostrum by checking blood total protein values in calves less than a week of age.
However, even when all the necessary steps are followed in handling the newborn calf, dairies still have sick calves. This leads us to the frustrating question: “Why? We did everything right.”
Handling the calf properly at birth and in the subsequent days and weeks that follow may seem like a simple, repetitive task that involves feeding calves on a regular schedule, cleaning the feeding equipment, and keeping the calves as clean and comfortable as possible. When this is done properly, raising calves can be very rewarding. However, it is easy to overlook some areas of the process that can contribute to calf illness.
A newer technology being used in investigating calf issues is a luminometer. It is a small handheld machine that allows the user to identify areas that are dirty and contaminated with potentially harmful infectious agents. It uses a special swab that contains a luciferase/luciferin reagent. When the reagent comes in contact with Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), light is emitted proportional to the amount of ATP present. ATP is found in most living cells, including potentially harmful bacteria found on dairies. The amount of light emitted by the reaction is then measured within 15 seconds by the luminometer as a Relative Light Unit (RLU). The higher the RLU, the more contaminated the area sampled.
When doing an environmental audit on a farm, areas that the calves come in contact with on a daily basis should be swabbed and tested. A goal for most dairies is to have a luminometer reading less than 50 RLU. The highest reading the meter will measure is 9999 RLU. It is not uncommon to find many readings that are greater than 5000 RLU during an initial audit. Even if the object looks clean, you may be surprised to find out how dirty and contaminated the surface really is.
The obvious items to test include bottles, nipples (inside and out), feeding buckets (especially worn and scratched) and water pails. Some of the less commonly thought of items include:
- Buckets used for mixing milk replacer
- Buckets used to store colostrum or whole milk
- Pitchers or similar objects used to measure volumes of water, milk or milk replacer
- Whisks or mixing wands used to mix the milk replacer
- Water hoses used to fill buckets, pitchers or mixing tubs
- Esophageal feeding tubes/bags used to deliver milk, milk replacer or electrolytes
- Colostrum collection buckets, lids and hosing
- Tools used to give calves oral boluses
- The floor of the mixing room, which is especially important if nipples, whisks or other equipment touch the ground during the feeding process
- Pasteurizer equipment, especially any hoses and valves
- Automatic calf feeders, especially hoses, valves and nipples (even if a proper wash cycle is run)
- Surfaces of the sink in the feeding area
- Faucets and knobs (hands touch these and then can touch nipples, bottles, etc.)
- Calf hutches or pen walls (it is possible for individual hutches or pen walls to re-infect the calves)
Work with your veterinarian or calf health specialist to identify the areas on your farm where additional cleaning may benefit your operation. Once these areas are identified, it is important to develop protocols designed to properly clean and disinfect.
You probably don’t think of doing calf chores as a dirty, disgusting, or messy occupational job, but, after doing an environmental audit, it will become evident that calf feeding can be an important “dirty little job” that can keep calves healthier.
Starting Strong - Calf Care