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Stop your calving barn from becoming a disease cesspool

Shannon Williams Published on 24 December 2015

A disease outbreak during calving season can have a devastating effect on your operation. It affects the health of your cattle, your bottom line and you as a human (added stress and disease potential – salmonellosis, cryptosporidiosis).

The good news is: By applying some simple biosecurity measures during this busy time, your calving barn doesn’t need to be a disease cesspool.

Both the cow and calf are at risk for disease during this time, but the most vulnerable is the calf. Calves born in a barn are at a disadvantage to those born in the brush.

A calving area in the brush has the advantage of sunlight, clean soil and fresh air that are sanitary by nature. But for some ranchers, calving in a barn is a necessity. Managed properly, the barn need not be an incubator for disease.

Sanitation

This needs to be a top priority every day of calving season. Before the first calf arrives, make sure that all calving equipment such as chains, pullers, bottle nipples and esophageal tubes are clean and disinfected. Continue this practice after each time they are used – and when in doubt, go ahead and sanitize.

Manure is a common vector for disease transmission. Several varieties of scours, parasites and other diseases are passed in manure. Manure feces are then transported on hooves, boots and equipment to other parts of the barn and operation.

Calves ingest the contaminated feces through direct ingestion or contamination of teats and milk. For this reason, manure management is key to keeping the barn from becoming a disease cesspool.

Hopefully, sometime after last calving season, you had the opportunity to clean the calving barn thoroughly. That should include scraping all the stalls down to the dirt and applying lime or lye to them. If not, take time to do it now.

As calving season progresses, include stripping the calving stalls between each pair down to the dirt and working lime or lye into the soil. This will help kill some of the disease bugs and aid in drying the soil.

Smooth surfaces should be washed down to rid them of manure. Diluted bleach is a great way to disinfect these surfaces, but it does not work on organic matter such as manure. Time is a great disinfectant.

Clean cattle facilities

If you can allow a stall to set dormant for a couple of days, it is to your advantage. If you are wondering how dry the soil in the stall is, kneel down. If the knees of your pants are wet, you need to let the stall dry or add extra bedding.

As you are busy disinfecting, do not forget about your “warming box.” Be sure to clean it between every calf. Disinfecting it with diluted bleach may seem like a good idea, but be very sure to rinse it thoroughly. If you do not get all the bleach rinsed out, as the box warms, chlorine fumes can cause respiratory complication in the calf.

Animal health

The best biosecurity plan is prevention. You need to work with your local veterinarian on a vaccination program for your herd. Their recommendations should include a plan for mature cows, first-calf heifers and calves. Nutrition plays a key role in animal health.

Know the nutritive value of your feeds and supplements. Make sure all calves receive colostrum within 12 hours of birth, as the rate of absorption drops by 50 percent in the next 12 hours. If a colostrum supplement is used, follow the instructions on the package and give the full amount listed.

New animals

No rancher likes having a cow lose a calf. Many times, they will purchase a calf to graft on to the cow so she can be “productive.” Caution must be exercised when doing this.

Calves need to be purchased from an operation that has good calf-rearing husbandry and common animal health management practices. If a calf is purchased, it is recommended that the cow and grafted calf be separated from the rest of the herd for at least 10 days.

Humans

One of the ways that disease moves from animal to animal, operation to operation, is by us. There are some simple steps we can take so we are not the disease transmission vector. All healthy animals should be fed and cared for each day before taking care of sick animals.

This prevents you from becoming a transportation vector for disease. The other alternative is to have a “dedicated” person who only takes care of the “sick or hospital pen” animals.

Boots not only keep our feet dry and protected, they also transport manure from place to place. For this reason, it is important to take time to clean and disinfect boots on a regular basis or have a dedicated pair of coveralls and boots to wear to the sick pen.

Grandpa Williams was a lifetime rancher. He always had two pairs of gloves when we worked cattle. One pair was for working cattle, the other “clean” pair was for eating lunch. You could apply the same principle to the calving barn. Have your “clean” pair when caring for the healthy cattle and the “other” pair for treating sick cattle. Washing your hands in-between is also a good idea.

Coveralls and chaps can also carry disease pathogens and manure. Take time to clean them off or wash them if dealing with sickness in your calving barn.

The West was won on neighbors helping neighbors. But if a neighbor is having a disease outbreak, do not visit their barn, and do not have them help you in your barn.

When you help a neighbor haul cattle during calving season, consider if you are transporting disease organisms inside the trailer or outside on tires and the pickup. If you have been transporting sick cattle, take time to clean out the manure, wash and disinfect.

Rodents and birds

Both rodents and birds can spread disease. They can carry disease organisms on their feet, feathers and fur and in their digestive systems.

When you consider that a rat deposits 25,000 droppings per year, and a mouse deposits 17,000 droppings, that is a lot of disease spread. Having an active bird and rodent control plan can help stop the spread of disease.

Dead animals

When you do lose an animal in the calving barn, you want to be sure to dispose of that animal within 48 hours. Action needs to be taken to prevent scavenging of dead animals by birds and dogs. Be sure that you also dispose of the bedding, milk, manure and feed that the animal was in contact with.

You shouldn’t dispose of this where other animals will come in contact with it. Thoroughly clean and disinfect the area where the animal died and clean all equipment that was in contact with that animal.

The bottom line to preventing your barn from becoming a disease cesspool is to use common sense and reduce exposure. Reducing exposure includes barn sanitation, animal health, quarantining new animals, disposing of dead animals and reducing the spread of disease by people, birds and rodents.  end mark

PHOTO:  Clean facilities with limited to no manure in calving pens is best as a prevention for scours. Photo provided by staff.

Shannon Williams
  • Shannon Williams

  • Extension Educator
  • Lemhi County - University of Idaho
  • Email Shannon Williams

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