Biofilms – A hidden Cause of Calf Scours

Washing of feeding equipment is a subject which is often overlooked. However, incorrect cleaning practices could be cultivating the perfect environment for disease-causing bacteria to survive in, ready to contaminate milk/milk replacer at every feeding time, leading to persistent calf scours and pneumonia.


Incorrect cleaning practices can lead to the development of what is called a ‘biofilm’.  A Biofilm is an invisible layer of protein and fat residue that builds up on equipment and surfaces that are not properly cleaned.

Bacteria binds to these residues and begin to quickly multiple and produce sticky, sugary substances allowing further milk residues to stick to the biofilm. This biofilm then begins to create its own environment which the bacteria can thrive in and they also produce substances to protect themselves against being removed.

The layer is also able to protect microbes which would have not previously survived in this environment, allowing a greater range of harmful bacteria to be present on the feeding equipment.

A biofilm is usually undetectable by eye, however an extreme build up may cause a yellow or white scum to appear and the surface may feel rough or slimy.


Why is a biofilm a problem for calf health?

Frequent exposure to even just low levels of bacteria can cause a calf to scour, and persistent high rates of scours are often connected to the onset of respiratory problems such as pneumonia.

Every time a piece of equipment is used, resident bacteria release from the biofilm and contaminate the milk/milk replacer increasing the levels of bacteria which the calf is exposed to.


Incorrect washing practices

Common incorrect washing practices:

  • Initial rinse water is too hot – particles will bond tighter to the surfaces.
  • Brushing is not thorough enough, leaving excess debris on the equipment.
  • Washing with no chemicals – biofilms will be undisturbed.
  • The main washing water is too cool-particles will stick back onto the surface
  • Damaged equipment- creates rough and cracked surfaces which are easy for biofilms to form on.

How do I control Biofilms?

The only way to control Biofilms is with a rigorous cleaning procedure.  Discard any broken or old equipment.

Every utensil used for feeding calves must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized with a strong disinfectant after every feeding and allowed to dry thoroughly. This includes balling guns and stomach tubes. Nipple buckets should be taken apart and cleaned.

How should I wash my feeding equipment?


Firstly rinse in LUKEWARM water (32-38ºC). DO NOT USE HOT WATER! (Using hot water during rinsing makes the milk proteins and fats stick more tightly to the surfaces). Aim to reduce all dirt and milk residue.


Then Soak the equipment in HOT water, (54-57ºC) and liquid detergent and bleach or a chlorinated alkaline detergent for at least 20-30 mins.


Scrub any remaining residues from the equipment with a brush to loosen any remaining solids.


Rewash all of the equipment in HOT water (at least 49ºC) to remove any remaining residues.


Rinse the inside and outside of equipment with an acid sanitiser which lowers the surface pH as any bacteria will struggle to grow in these acidic conditions.

6. DRY
  • DO allow the equipment to dry thoroughly between uses. Hang equipment on drying racks.
  • DO NOT stack buckets inside each other
  • DO NOT sit feeder’s upside-down on a concrete floor- this is a perfect environment for bacteria to develop.

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