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Calves and clostridia: Protecting your future herd

Gene Boomer for Progressive Dairy Published on 23 August 2019

It’s one of those moments on the dairy that makes all the stress and worry dissipate. As the still damp newborn heifer tries once, twice and finally succeeds on the third attempt to stand, there’s an overwhelming feeling of hope and optimism for the future.

The last thing on your mind is the obscure bacteria lurking in the shadows.



But that doesn’t mean clostridia and a myriad of other unseen organisms aren’t present and busy influencing the world around them. In fact, clostridial bacteria are normal bacteria for cattle and usually only become problematic with dietary stress, injury, changes in management or other unusual circumstances, like calving, that favor growth and production of potent toxins.

In calves, the sudden onset of abdominal pain, depression, feed refusal and even death are associated with clostridia, specifically Clostridium perfringens, and can turn that optimistic moment into disaster for the youngest animals on the farm.

Hidden risk

University of Wisconsin veterinary experts report clostridial diseases on dairies are usually sporadic, and cases may occur in clusters over a relatively short period of time. Other farms have ongoing problems in cows or milk-fed calves. Clostridial diseases occur suddenly and quickly increase in severity. Often, death is the first sign of illness.

It’s easy to get lulled into disregarding the significance of clostridia and other microbes, given that diseases can be difficult to diagnose and often occur sporadically. Dairies may not realize they have a potential issue lurking below the surface.

However, clostridia are much more prevalent than you may realize. Between November 2015 and December 2018, Arm & Hammer collected and analyzed 1,200 calf fecal samples from seven states including California, Idaho, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. Of those samples, 72% tested positive for C. perfringens.


As Figure 1 shows, tests revealed the highest prevalence in the first three weeks of life. During this critical time, the newborn calf’s immune system is undeveloped, and a milk-based diet allows clostridia populations to flourish.

Prevalence of C. perfringens in dairy caf fecal samples

Prevention not intervention

If the clostridial disease is caught early enough, potential treatments include fluids, antibiotics, antitoxins and anti-inflammatory drugs. Unfortunately, these interventions are frequently unsuccessful. With newborn calves representing the newest genetic endeavors and future of the herd, the threat of sudden illness and death is costly for every farm.

Because treatment success is rare, producers should emphasize mitigating the risk calves encounter. And the number one strategy for mitigating risk is hygiene. Clostridia is found in dirt and may be introduced to calves through improperly prepped and maintained udders and equipment. From colostrum harvest to administration, producers should follow these steps to ensure cleanliness of their calf procedures:

  • Wash, disinfect, wipe udder and teats clean before colostrum harvest.

  • Hygienically milk into sanitized equipment within three hours after calving.

  • Refrigerate excess colostrum immediately and freeze if not used in 24 hours. Bacteria develop rapidly in refrigerated colostrum.

  • Use hot water to wash and sanitize milking, storage and feeding equipment.

  • Monitor all equipment for fat film on surfaces.

Some producers choose to administer a C. perfringens vaccine. Although helpful, vaccines often have limited scope and do not protect vulnerable heifers from all strains of clostridia. Use vaccines in combination with good hygiene to effectively mitigate clostridial risk.

Unique solution

After ensuring proper colostrum harvest, storage and administration techniques are in place, another preventative step is through microbial feed additives – essentially using microbes to defeat microbes. One beneficial microbe is Bacillus, which are natural enemies of clostridia and have existed in the soil for eons. Long-term Bacillus feeding actually changes clostridial population levels and species diversity.


Researchers have identified several specific combinations of Bacillus bacteria strains that inhibit Clostridium. Tests show specific strains differ from region to region and farm to farm, so it is important to develop solutions specific to each situation.

Here are best practices to implement herd-specific microbial solutions:

  • Gather and analyze fecal samples to assess bacterial challenges throughout the farm.

  • Determine which strain or strains of beneficial Bacillus will best address the harmful organisms found on your dairy.

  • Develop individualized feed additives based on analyses that address specific challenges on the sampled farm.

  • Continuous service and follow-up monitoring help facilitate long-term success.

Setting heifers up for success

Preventative measures that include hygiene and feed strategies can help prepare the calf for challenges it will face during its first stage of life. Heading off those challenges can have long-lasting effects on the animal.

Research shows a calf that doesn’t see a treatment protocol on the farm in the first four months of life also performs better in the lactating herd. In a study at Cornell University, calves treated with antibiotics gave 1,086 pounds less milk during their first lactation than untreated calves. This decreased lactation response was because calves expended energy on fighting disease rather than on growth.

Alleviating clostridia helps heifers focus on growth. By mitigating clostridia risk, you can stay optimistic about the future of your operation while watching a calf take its first breaths.  end mark

Boomer has a DVM degree from Kansas State University and is currently Ruminant Technical Services Manager with Arm & Hammer Animal and Food Production.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Gene Boomer
  • Gene Boomer

  • Ruminant Technical Services Manager/Nutritionist
  • Arm & Hammer Animal and Food Production
  • Email Gene Boomer