Imagine becoming ill and requiring overnight hospitalization. What if the hospital staff didn't have time to clean and sanitize your assigned room or bed. The bed sheets look clean enough but are unchanged from the previous patient, who died from a contagious disease. How you fare with your hospitalization will depend on your resistance level; in other words, do you feel lucky?

The truth is that many cattlemen play out this scenario every time they run a cow and newborn calf through the calving barn. The cow may not be at risk, but the newborn calf, which has an immature and compromised immune system, certainly is. Even though the calving barn may appear clean, it's often a bacteria or viral cesspool. Similar to a human stay in the hospital, not just cleaning but thoroughly sanitizing the environment prior to the next patient is paramount to animal health.

Calves born to first-calf heifers and those calves born assisted and in a barn setting are at a disease transmission disadvantage compared to calves born in the brush to mature cows. Brush calving provides some protection from the elements while sunlight, clean soil and fresh open air are sanitary by nature. These are all positive natural disease-preventive conditions for successful calving. Calving areas such as feed grounds or calving barns offer the opposite relative to animal health and survivability.

Any time a calf goes through the barn, special attention needs to be made relative to sanitation and trying to keep the area dry. Clorox bleach and water will work well on the smooth surfaces of the pen such as boards or metal panels. It won’t get the bugs in the soil; the standard recommendation is to remove all wet and soiled straw or sawdust and keep the area as dry as possible.

Work lime or lye into the soil. These agents will kill the bugs in the soil (hopefully) as well as aid in drying the soil. Sunshine, if available, is a great disinfectant. After the above procedures have been completed, lay down clean, dry sawdust or straw as bedding.

It seems time is always at a premium during calving. The first corner often cut is sanitation. Instead, make sanitation the number-one priority. Sanitizing calving equipment such as chains, pullers and calving bottle nipples or esophageal tubes before each use will reduce the challenge. Washing hands, boots and changing clothing often, including gloves, are all good management tips.

"Adhere to strict biosecurity measures," warns David Thain, University of Nevada Extension veterinarian. "Avoid introducing the sale barn calf to your calving barn. Insist visitors from neighboring ranches thoroughly clean and disinfect boots and outerwear before entering your calving barn area. Work with healthy calves first, then work with the high-risk calves. This practice will reduce exposure to all calves. Some even place cow-calf pairs that went through the calving barn in a separate field to reduce the exposure level of low-risk calves to high-risk calves. Educate your employees on the subject and make sure they understand that sanitation is a number-one priority. Make sure all who work in the calving barn understand and follow your management practices for sanitation and biosecurity."

Thain goes on to state, "Dipping the wet navel (immediately after birth) of high-risk calves in tinctured iodine helps. The navel is often a major port of entry for disease transmission. Pre-vaccination of heifers with scour vaccine is a good idea. Pre-calving feeding of minerals and vitamins to pregnant heifers helps boost the immune system of both the cow and newborn calf. Keeping heifers in a body condition score 6 at calving and a rich diet pre- and postpartum helps increase colostrum quality and quantity thus newborn thriftiness and survivability. Being observant and isolating sick calves is a necessary management practice."

"Let’s not put all our faith into sanitation," warns Dr. J.J. Goicoechea, DVM, Eureka Veterinary Clinic. "Once you get sick and scouring calves in a place, they will saturate the area with infective organisms. We’ve all heard about the outbreaks of disease in human or animal/veterinary schools or hospitals. Even with their level of sanitation and lots of labor to clean, they have a very difficult time controlling the outbreak. Almost always they end up stopping all new admissions to at least an area or even the entire hospital, until they can get it cleaned up. Don’t expect to squirt a little ‘stuff’ around and have it all go away."

Goicoechea goes on to state, "If at all possible, avoid exposing newborn calves to unnecessary pathogens often present in a calving barn. This may mean deferring calving dates to a time of year when more favorable weather occurs, calving in the clean brush and/ or implementing a system known as the Sandhills Calving (SC) program, which reduces calf exposure by routinely moving uncalved cows to new calving pastures and away from newborn pairs. Therefore, all calves within a pasture are of similar age. In fact, a case study of a 900-head Nebraska cattle herd found this system saved thousands of dollars. The bottom line is to follow common sense and reduce exposure whenever possible."
-- Ron Torell, University of Nevada (torellr@unce.unr.edu)