Step-by-step instructions to keep calf feeding equipment clean enough to eat from

Residues from colostrum, milk, and milk replacer are great places for pathogens to grow. Feeding equipment, such as nipples, bottles, pails, mixing instruments, hoses, etc. can all harbour disease-causing bacteria if not cleaned, sanitized, and dried thoroughly after each use.

According to Dr. Sam Leadley, Attica Veterinary Associates, the goal of cleaning and sanitizing calf feeding equipment is to control bacterial growth by removing them from surfaces, killing any that remain, removing their food and water sources, and lowering the pH to prevent further growth.

Sanitizing reduces the number of pathogens on a surface by cleaning (using soap and water to remove pathogens) or disinfecting (using chemicals to kill pathogens).

The following steps can help keep feeding equipment clean and prevent bacteria from growing. Always wear the appropriate personal protective equipment, like gloves and goggles, when handling chemicals and working with hot water, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

  • Rinse nipples, bottles, bags, and pails in lukewarm water to remove colostrum/milk solids (and any other organic contaminants like manure, urine, or dirt) from both the inside and the outside of feeding equipment. Water temperature of the initial rinse is very important. When milk residues come in contact with very hot water, the molecules within break down and adhere to surfaces, creating biofilm. Biofilm is very difficult to remove and can harbour bacteria—which can’t be detected by visual inspection.
  • Soak feeding equipment in hot water (49°C or 120°F) with chlorine to kill bacteria and help remove residues. Do not allow the water temperature to fall, as this can cause residues that were loosened to stick back on.
  • Scrub with warm water and soap. Special brushes should be used to clean items with hard to reach areas such as nipples, esophageal feeders, and milk lines.
  • Rinse in warm water with acid sanitizing solution, as per manufacturer’s instructions. The acid rinse will help prevent bacterial growth.
  • Allow the equipment to dry thoroughly before the next use. Spreading the equipment out to dry on racks, rather than stacking it, will eliminate the moisture bacteria need to grow on surfaces between milk feedings.
While feeding equipment may appear clean, if you are noticing a greater number of sick calves, consult with your veterinarian about sending away samples for assessment or using a luminometer on-farm to detect contamination. 

Periodically inspect feeding equipment, as etched plastic bottles, pails, and cracked nipples create surfaces for bacteria to attach to. All bottles and buckets with cuts, grooves or scratches on the inside should be discarded.

Work with your veterinarian to develop sanitation protocols. They have the tools and knowledge to help you reduce disease on your farm and keep calves healthy!