Pre-Weaned Calf Rearing on Northern Irish Dairy Farms—Part 2: The Impact of Hygiene Practice on Bacterial Levels in Dairy Calf Rearing Environments

Pre-weaned dairy calves are very susceptible to disease in the first months of life due to having a naïve immune system and because of the numerous physiological stressors they face. Hygiene management is a key element in minimizing enteric disease risk in calves by reducing their exposure to pathogens. Samples of milk, concentrate feed and drinking water, boot swabs of bedding and swabs of feed equipment were collected from 66 dairy farms as part of a survey of calf rearing practice and housing design. All the samples were cultured to determine total viable counts (TVC), total coliforms (TCC) and Escherichia coli as indicators of hygiene. Target ranges for levels of TVC, TCC and E. coli were defined from the literature and the sample results compared against them. The TVC targets in milk, MR and water were <4.0 log10 CFU/mL. TCC and E. coli targets of <1.1 log10 CFU/mL (the detection limit) were used for milk, MR, concentrate feed and feeding equipment. For water, the TCC and E. coli targets were <1.0 log10 CFU/100 mL. The targets used for bedding boot swabs were <6.3 log10 TVC CFU/mL and <5.7 log10 TCC or E. coli CFU/mL. Farm management factors were included as fixed effects in a generalized linear mixed model to determine the probability of samples being within each hygiene indicator target range. Milk replacer samples obtained from automatic feeders were more likely to be within the TVC target range (0.63 probability) than those prepared manually (0.34) or milk samples taken from the bulk tank (0.23). Concentrate feed samples taken from buckets in single-calf pens were more likely to have E. coli detected (0.89) than samples taken from group pen troughs (0.97). A very small proportion of water samples were within the indicator targets (TVC 9.8%, TCC 6.0%, E. coli 10.2%). Water from self-fill drinkers had a lower likelihood of being within the TVC target (0.03) than manually filled buckets (0.14), and water samples from single pens were more likely to be within TCC target ranges (0.12) than those from group pens (0.03). However, all self-fill drinkers were located in group pens so these results are likely confounded. Where milk feeders were cleaned after every feed, there was a greater likelihood of being within the TVC target range (0.47, compared with 0.23 when not cleaned after every feed). Detection of coliforms in milk replacer mixing utensils was linked with reduced probability of TVC (0.17, compared with 0.43 when coliforms were not detected) and TCC (0.38, compared with 0.62), which was within target in feeders. Key factors related to increased probability of bedding samples being within TCC target range were use of group calf pens (0.96) rather than single-calf pens (0.80), use of solid floors (0.96, compared with 0.76 for permeable floors) and increased space allowance of calves (0.94 for pens with ≥2 m2/calf, compared with 0.79 for pens with <2 m2/calf). Bedding TVC was more likely to be within the target range in group (0.84) rather than in single pens (0.66). The results show that hygiene levels in the calf rearing environment vary across farms and that management and housing design impact hygiene.
Publication history: Accepted - 18 March 2023; Published - 21 March 2023.
bedding, enteric disease, housing, feeding equipment, management, space allowance
Brown, A.J., Scoley, G., O’Connell, N., Gordon, A., Lawther, K., Huws, S.A. and Morrison, S.J. (2023) ‘Pre-Weaned Calf Rearing on Northern Irish Dairy Farms—Part 2: The Impact of Hygiene Practice on Bacterial Levels in Dairy Calf Rearing Environments’, Animals. MDPI AG. Available at: