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A fresh perspective on cleaning calf housing

Brian Wesemann Published on 24 August 2015

dairy calf

Developing or improving your farm’s guidelines for cleaning and sanitizing calf housing might seem like a daunting task. Try looking at it from a different angle. As a dairy farmer, you are more than likely familiar with the careful, well-thought-out routine of cleaning and sanitizing equipment in your parlor or milk house.



In the parlor, the goal is to collect and store milk wholesome and safe enough for people to drink. This is a process that continues to evolve as our understanding of pathogens has improved, leading to new technology and processes.

Fundamentally, the process of cleaning and sanitizing calf housing is the same as cleaning and sanitizing milking equipment. In the milking parlor, you have learned to use the right people and the right products correctly in order to meet stringent food safety standards.

You have learned to train your people carefully and to watch for inconsistencies. If you keep those skills in mind when writing protocols for cleaning and sanitizing calf equipment, you will be well on your way to providing a safe environment in which your youngstock will grow and thrive.

First, know the difference between “clean” and “sanitized.” Clean equipment is free of visible dirt such as food waste or manure, but it’s not necessarily sterile. Sanitized equipment is free of pathogens. Technically speaking, manure can be sanitized – if the sanitation process is done correctly.

That doesn’t mean it’s OK to be lax in the cleaning process. It does mean the best plans for cleaning and sanitizing calf housing recognize the difference between the two activities and make each its own step in the process. It’s not realistic to spend 18 hours cleaning one calf pen because you can still see a speck here or there. On the other hand, don’t think your equipment is sanitary just because you’ve scraped and rinsed the manure off.


Cleaning agents

Be sure you are using the right sanitizing products for the problematic pathogens on your farm. It won’t help to reduce scours caused by E. coli if you’re treating equipment to eliminate cryptosporidium or vice versa. If you have a milk quality and sanitation staff person or consultant, consider bringing him or her onboard to develop protocols for swabbing calf housing and equipment.

Swabbing will allow you to identify which pathogens are prevalent in your calf housing and equipment. Armed with that knowledge, work with your veterinarian to choose the best products to eliminate those specific pathogens.

Just like in the milking parlor, another key to using the right sanitizing product is using that product correctly. If a product is labeled as needing 20 minutes of contact time, and it is only on a surface for two minutes, the mistake must be chalked up to applicator error, not product error. It’s not enough to choose the right product for the job; following the label is also a must.

Speaking of operators, consider carefully when assigning someone the task of cleaning and sanitizing calf housing. The job requires someone who is patient, meticulous and willing to follow instructions to the letter.

Consider who is doing the job and whether he or she is the best fit. When training employees for this chore, remember to teach them the “why” in addition to the “how.” Not only will this help employees remember the process, it might give them the knowledge to improve it.

Don’t feel like you have to start from scratch when writing protocols for cleaning and sanitizing calf housing. Even if your old guidelines are not effective, they can at least help you identify areas that need improvement.


Use that knowledge to develop standards that are effective and enjoyable for the person doing the work. If a protocol is in place on your farm, but workers are not following through on it, ask what they don’t like about cleaning calf housing. Use that information to design a task people can stick with and do well.

Keep in mind, training someone to clean and sanitize calf housing has a different time structure than training the person who is cleaning and sanitizing your milking parlor. The parlor gets cleaned and sanitized two or three times daily, depending on your milking schedule.

The frequency of repetition makes it easier to train a new employee and to identify and eliminate mistakes or inconsistencies. The disadvantage in your calf barn – where you’re cleaning and sanitizing pens only between calves – is that you might go 60 days between training sessions. If you have staff turnover or changes in between, you will have even fewer opportunities for consistent training and practice.

It’s hard to put a price on the value of providing clean, sanitized housing and equipment for calves. Cleaning and sanitizing is a preventative measure rather than a responsive one. Like most preventative measures, you can’t predict how many infections, outbreaks or infestations you’ve avoided.

If it is important to you to put a cost on the process, consider how many calves you have to save until your cleaning and sanitizing system pays for itself. The information and technology available today makes that number lower than any time in history. PD

Brian Wesemann is thedirector of sales for Calf-Tel HampelAnimal Care. He can be contacted by email.

PHOTO: Consider carefully when assigning someone the task of cleaning and sanitizing calf housing. Be sure to design protocols that make the work efficient and pleasant for the worker. Photo courtesy of Calf-Tel.