Best practices for keeping feeding equipment clean in the calf barn, including protocols for proper sanitation and culturing, were presented during a panel discussion at the Cornell Calf and Heifer Congress 2016.

Freelance Writer
Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural a...

The panel focused on the importance of protecting against biofilm development.

Jerry Bertoldo, senior extension associate with Cornell University’s NWNY Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Team, organized the panel after encountering biofilm issues on a growing number of dairy farms.

Some producers aren’t aware that commonly used feeding tools and equipment are prime candidates for harboring biofilms. Even those who do realize this might not know the proper protocols for prevention.

Add in the increasing use of calf auto feeders, which have proven very conducive to biofilm development if not properly cleaned each day, and producers are not necessarily aware of the risks, or what to do about them, Bertoldo said.


Panelists included Sam Leadley, DVM, Attica Veterinary Associates; Sue Puffenbarger, Land O’Lakes; Kazmeira Nero, calf manager at the 2,000-cow Oakwood Dairy LLC; and Danielle Mzyk, North Carolina State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, DVM/Ph.D. candidate.

They shared insights on biofilm prevention, troubleshooting and disease concerns in a follow-up interview. Dairy farmer Darlene Hull was also a member of the panel.

Serious threat

No one knows firsthand the serious nature of biofilms, and the need to guard against them, better than Mzyk, who became critically ill after working in a calf barn.

“Virtually no surface is immune to biofilms,” Mzyk said. “It can accumulate on stainless steel, metals, glass and yes – even cellphones. When my cellphone and my bloodstream cultures matched for salmonella Dublin, it ingrained in my mind as a future veterinarian to make sure all calf raisers I meet understand the importance of sanitation to human and animal health.”

Biofilms are common occurrences in daily life situations, Leadley said. Teeth are brushed to prevent biofilm development. River rocks are slippery due to biofilms. During rumination, biofilms are needed to break down hay and ensiled feeds.

In the calf barn, “The biofilms we are most concerned about are the ones on feeding equipment,” Leadley said. “Although we do try to reduce biofilm development to a reasonable level in the environment of calves – housing, gates, waterers – these are not as critical in managing illness as is clean feeding equipment.”

Biofilms and calf feeding

Biofilms become more of a concern as they mature and become more difficult to eliminate. The more mature biofilm development is, the more shedding of bacteria into the colostrum or milk occurs.

“The reason calf-care persons want to control biofilm development on feeding equipment is to reduce bacterial contamination, especially in first milk from cows – colostrum – and the milk that is fed daily to young preweaned calves,” Leadley said.

“Excessively high bacteria counts in these feeds for preweaned calves lead to diarrhea and, among calves weakened by diarrhea, lead to pneumonia. In sum: sick calves.”

The first stage of a biofilm is a protein sticking to the wall of equipment, such as a nursing bottle. Next, bacteria begin sticking to the protein particles and begin to produce a sticky substance that also accumulates.

This leads to the attachment of more bacteria and even more stickiness. A thriving bacterial colony results.

The basics of milk chemistry add to the problem, Leadley said. Whey is a milk protein with heat-sensitive bonds. If exposed to high temperatures, such as hot washwater, bonds weaken, and the whey protein molecules become sticky.

They then stick to the inside of equipment; nursing bottles, hoses, auto feeder tubing and nipples are all at risk.

Cleaning protocol

“Based on this milk chemistry, we recommend rinsing all equipment with ‘lukewarm,’ not hot water, to flush as much of the whey protein away before exposing it to hot washwater. This discourages the formation of biofilms on equipment that has been exposed to milk or colostrum,” Leadley said.

Simple steps needed to prevent biofilms included rinsing in warm water, washing in hot water, rinsing again in warm water while adding acid and letting equipment air dry before storing.

Don’t stack dried pails or turn buckets upside-down on a concrete floor, as both of these practices increase the likelihood of contamination from the environment.

“The most crucial thing we do to ensure biofilms do not develop is to wash all equipment as soon as possible,” Nero said. “Bottles, nipples, milking pails and buckets, and calf buckets all get washed with warm, soapy, chlorinated water as soon as they are done being used.

We also switch the youngest calf buckets with fresh buckets every day.”

Just a few minutes a day to incorporate proper cleaning saves time and money in the long run, preventing calf illness, she said. If there is a time when washing the equipment immediately cannot be done, Nero suggests promptly rinsing everything, then washing as soon as possible.

In addition to the cleaning protocol, Oakwood Dairy also cultures milking, pasteurizing and calf equipment monthly.

“If we do not follow our day-to-day cleaning protocols for all equipment, then that directly affects our monthly cultures and ultimately affects the overall well-being of our calves,” Nero said. “Monthly culturing ... holds us accountable for our day-to-day cleaning protocols.”

Mzyk agrees that culturing is not only something to do when issues have already occurred but is also a preventive measure.

“Culturing is an important tool not just for solving an ongoing sanitation issue but also maintaining and double-checking cleaning protocols that are already in place,” she said. “Using culture to identify possible pathogens on any equipment that comes into contact with calves can help solve outbreaks and act as quality control checkpoints that ultimately lead to healthier calves.”

Hull manages her farm’s 750-cow group-housed wet barn with robotic feeders, and their “protocols for maintaining the robots and the surrounding areas and surfaces is quite impressive,” Bertoldo said.

They are experiencing some issues with colostrum and possibly with calf milk handling and storage. The farm does not currently culture on a routine basis, and adding a culturing regime is recommended.

Auto feeders

Auto feeding equipment requires daily maintenance and cleaning. Cleaning might be reduced with auto feeders, but it is not eliminated, Puffenbarger said. Many farmers aren’t fully aware of the proper cleaning auto feeders require.

“Without daily cleaning of auto feeders, calf health is impaired, which then affects growth rates and long-term productivity,” she said. “You can’t just show up twice a day to put powder in the hopper.

There is still manual work that has to be done, such as changing nipples and tubing, the circuit cleaning, adding detergent and cleaning the outlets and hopper.”

Occasional culturing of combination units, which feed milk and milk replacer, helps to verify that everything between the bulk tank and the nipple is getting cleaned. With pasteurization systems, routine culturing pre- and post-pasteurization will check that the unit is working properly, Puffenbarger said. Quarterly swabs will spot-check cleaning protocols and ensure they are being properly performed.

“The take-home message is: Auto feeders need daily maintenance and cleaning in order for you to realize the potential of the units. Without proper cleaning, gains and health are significantly negatively affected,” she said.

Whether the dairy has invested in the newest automated calf feeding equipment or uses manual methods, proper and effective cleaning is needed to combat the real threat which biofilms present to calf – and human – health.

“Maintaining clean calf-raising facilities will keep costs of scours and respiratory diseases down, use less antibiotics and just may keep your veterinarian from contracting salmonella,” Mzyk said.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.