How many of your heifer calves are born in a clean, dry environment? What percentage of them spend the first two, four, eight or 16 hours of their life in an environment where they will not eat cow manure – term this a “manure meal”?

Start calves off on the right footMinimizing manure in a calf’s mouth before she drinks colostrum is one of the most important management steps for reducing diarrhea in young calves.

Scientists worry about “fecal:oral” transmission of pathogens in calves. When calves get bacteria and parasites into their mouths, these pathogens end up in the gut and promptly set up house.

The worst situation for a calf is to get manure in her mouth before drinking colostrum. The unprotected gut has no defenses against the bacteria – especially coliforms from manure. Even plenty of good-quality colostrum following the manure meal cannot keep the first arrivals – coliforms – from setting up colonies on the gut surfaces. That is why it is so important to protect the calf’s mouth from muck and other dirt before she drinks her colostrum.

What are the practical steps to take at calving? First, provide either a clean place on grass to calve or if inside, plenty of clean dry bedding. Clean means the absence of manure or just plain dirt. Dry means the absence of both urine and calving fluids (amniotic fluids). All these contaminants contain bacteria and support the growth of more bacteria.

Second, once the calf is able to stand and search for her first meal, minimize her contact with dirty surfaces. The most common place newborn calves consume manure before drinking colostrum is the hair of the dam or other cows. Only the amount of feces equal to the end of your little finger is needed to start a seven- to 10 day-long episode of scours when the calf is about a week old.

This is the reason for the recommendation that as soon as a calf can stand keep her from wandering around. If colostrum is hand-fed, put her in a place where she cannot lick and suck on the dam’s hair. If colostrum is to be suckled, after cleaning off the dam’s teats take a few moments to encourage the calf to start exploring at the udder rather than randomly searching at the dam’s forelegs and brisket.

Source: Sam Leadley, Attica Veterinary Associates