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? Perhaps the bedsheets look clean enough, but they're unchanged from the previous patient, who by the way 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, many cattlemen visit 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, with its 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, thorough sanitizing of the environment prior to the next patient is paramount to animal health.

Calves born to first-calf heifers, as well as assisted births 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 air are sanitary by nature. Calving areas such as feed grounds or calving barns offer the opposite in animal health and survivability.

Any time a calf goes through the barn, special attention needs to be made regarding sanitation and dryness of the area. Clorox bleach and water will work well on smooth surfaces of the pen, but 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.

Working lime or lye into the soil is one approach. These agents will hopefully kill the bugs in the soil and aid in drying it. Sunshine, if it is accessible, is a great disinfectant. After the above procedures have been completed, put down clean, dry sawdust or straw as bedding.

With time seemingly always at a premium during calving, sanitation is often the first corner cut. 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. In addition, washing hands and 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 that visitors from neighboring ranches thoroughly clean and disinfect boots and outerwear before entering your calving barn area.”

Thain suggests working with healthy calves first, then the high-risk calves, to reduce exposure to all calves. Some ranchers 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 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 says.

Dipping the wet navel (immediately after birth) of high-risk calves in tinctured iodine helps, he adds, as the navel is often a major port of entry for disease. Pre-vaccination of heifers with scour vaccine is also a good idea, while pre-calving feeding of minerals and vitamins to pregnant heifers helps boost the immune system of both the dam and its newborn.

“Keeping heifers in a body condition score 6 at calving and feeding a rich diet pre- and postpartum helps increase colostrum quality and quantity, thus newborn thriftiness and survivability,” Thain says. “Being observant and isolating sick calves are necessary management practices.”

J.J. Goicoechea, DVM, Eureka Veterinary Clinic, Eureka, NV, warns about putting all your faith into sanitation, however.

“Once you get sick and scouring calves in a place, they will saturate the area with infective organisms. We've all heard about 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. Don't expect to squirt a little ‘stuff’ around and have it all go away.”

If at all possible, Goicoechea adds, avoid exposing newborn calves unnecessarily to pathogens often present in a calving barn. This may mean deferring calving dates to a more temperate time of year, calving in the clean brush and/or implementing a system like the Sandhills Calving program.

“The Sandhills system reduces calf exposure by routinely moving uncalved cows to new calving pastures and away from newborn pairs. Thus, all calves within a pasture are of similar age. In fact, a case study of a 900-head herd in Nebraska found this system saved thousands of dollars,” Goicoechea says. (Read more about the program at http://beefmagazine.com/cowcalfweekly/sandhills-calving-system-scours/index.html.)

“The bottom line, Goicoechea concludes, “is to follow common sense and reduce exposure whenever possible.”

Ron Torell is a University of Nevada Extension livestock specialist in Elko.