Are you getting milk to your calves fast enough to keep bacteria levels low?

Pasteurization is a great tool that many people in the dairy industry and many other industries use to produce safe food and beverages for us to enjoy.

Just like in the human food sector, we should be offering safe and sanitary milk and colostrum for our calves to drink too!

Unfortunately, when feeding calves, this is a lot easier said than done many times.

When was the last time that you took samples of the milk that your calves were being fed? Not just from the tank either, from the bucket or bottle also. If you haven’t, I think you might be surprised (and maybe even slightly disturbed) at what you find.

Industry standard for SPC counts in milk being fed to calves is 100,000 CFU/mL and 10,000 CFU/mL of E. Coli/coliform, but you can achieve much below those counts by taking measures to make sure one, they don’t get that high, and two, that you keep track of the milk after “treatment” (e.i pasteurization, preservative additives, etc.).

Bacteria, the bad guys, can double every 20 minutes at room temperature. So that milk that came out of the cow clean, and got left in an open bucket in the milking parlor until after milking was finished before it got taken to the calf barn and put in the pasteurizer to be cooled down, is probably not in good shape by the time that it gets there!

That would be fine and dandy, except for the fact that pasteurization is not a sterilization process. While it does kill a very large portion of the bacteria (99%), the higher you start, the higher you end.

For example, say you milked a treated cow into a bucket and dumped it into an open top 5 gallon pail (that may or may not be clean). Say everything isn’t perfectly clean. It picks up a few CFU here and a few CFU there, and a spec of manure gets flung into the open bucket by a passing cow’s tail. Say we start with 200 CFU of E. Coli, that’s way under the limit, right? Right, but milking takes 4 hours, and the milk sits there the whole time.

After 4 hours of sitting at room temperature, that milk will now be at approximately 819,200 CFU of E. Coli. Say it goes down to the calf barn, and sits in the pail for another 20 minutes because someone forgot to dump it, and is now at 1,683,400 CFU of E. Coli. Say it takes another 20 minutes for that milk to get cooled down in the pasteurizer, now we’re at 3,276,800 of E. Coli!!

YIKES! That is scary for your calves!

Now, say you aren’t pasteurizing, that 3,000,000 CFU is now going to go straight into your calf’s belly. I doubt very much they will be feeling great after that.

Say you pasteurize it, and it kills 99% of that bacteria, now you are back at 32,768 CFU, but what if it takes you an hour to feed calves, and that milk is sitting at 100F for that hour? Now that last calf is getting milk with 131,072 CFU of E. Coli. in it.

That was a pretty long illustration, and it is also of course not 100% accurate due to the fact that there are a multitude of factors that can go into play here, but the bottom line is, you want to start low, stay low, feed low. Thankfully, there are many ways to accomplish this!

Here are a few ways to mitigate those risks:

The first step is to figure out where you are right now, maybe you are already doing a fantastic job with your milk bacteria levels, but say you are well over the 100,000 CFU of E. Coli goal, now what?

  1. Literally run to the pasteurizer with your 5 gallon pails of milk, if you’re using a gator, put the petal all the way to the floor. Put it in the pail, get it to the calf barn, and get that milk cooled down as fast as physically possible.

2. Feed the milk as fast as possible, within 20 to 40 minutes of it coming out of the cow.

Okay, so that’s dramatic and not always possible, what else can you do?

3. Add DK-ll to the milk immediately after you put the milk in the storage pails.

We have found this to work for people using waste milk and milk replacer alike. While they both likely have different challenges, there are still challenges present in both situations. This will buy you time and keep the milk from doubling bacteria levels every 20 minutes, and if you use DK-ll, it will also help reduce the bacteria level that might already be present in the milk because of dirty hands or a dirty bucket.

Why else would you want to add DK-ll to the milk being fed to the calves?

  1. It will help you buffer out any human errors along the way. Milk and colostrum are highly susceptible to bacterial growth because of the fact that it’s a nearly perfect medium. Things like dirty equipment, dirty hands, wait time between cooling, wait time until pasteurization, time from start to finish to get the milk delivered to the calves, and any other thing that could go wrong on the milks way to the calf.
  2. It will lower the pH of the milk. Slightly lowering the pH of the milk can help reduce pathogen growth, and can also help that calf’s gut by reducing the pH of the abomasum making it easier on digestion as the abomasum doesn’t have to secrete as many enzymes to get the milk to a digestible pH to form a clot, and further reducing the likelihood of pathogen overgrowth by helping the digestion process along quicker (hello, clostridium).
  3. You have the opportunity to take a stressor away from your calves. High bacteria is stressful to a calf’s underdeveloped system. The fewer of those stressors you can hand to your calves, the better off they will be. Stressed calves are sick calves and high bacteria loads are VERY stressful.

Many things can go wrong with milk on the way to the calf. When considering your milk feeding process, whether feeding waste milk, whole milk, or milk replacer, always account for human error and bacteria. Just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean that your calves don’t know they are there!

If you are interested in learning more about DK-ll follow the link below! As always, if you have any questions or are looking for additional help with you calf program, please reach out!

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