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Calf Pneumonia Causes, Costs and Prevention

Calf pneumonia or Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is a complex, multi-factorial disease which results in inflammation and damage to the tissues of the lungs and respiratory tract. It is the most common reason for poor performance and death in growing calves1.

Any level of impaired respiratory health can impact a calf for its entire life leading
to reduced growth rates, later finishing times and lower milk yields. Combined with increased feed requirements and veterinary attention, the impact pneumonia can have on the profitability of the whole farming unit is often sizeable.

There are many causes of pneumonia. The graph shows the prevalence of each pneumonia-causing pathogen.

APHA Surveillance Data for Pneumonia Pathogens 2012-2017
APHA Surveillance Data for Pneumonia Pathogens 2012-2017

Any of these pathogens can contribute to calf pneumonia but mixed infections are also common. It’s important to work with your vet to diagnose the cause of pneumonia accurately and re-test regularly because pathogens can change over time.

Pneumonia Stress Factors

Some of these pathogens live in the calf’s respiratory tract without causing disease, but when the calf is stressed or immunocompromised they can become pathogenic, causing pneumonia. Environmental or management factors can cause stress and directly impact the susceptibility of calves to disease as well as its spread and volume.

Factors known to have a significant impact on calf pneumonia:

  • Sick animals not being isolated
  • Mixing different age groups of calves
  • Transport stress
  • Sudden changes in diet (e.g. weaning)
  • Exposure to draughts
  • Overstocking
  • Inadequate ventilation
  • Extremes of temperature
  • Poor hygiene/drainage
  • Poor access to feed, inadequate amount of feed or sudden changes in feed composition (including weaning)
  • Too many interventions at once i.e. weaning at the same time as disbudding causing stress
Correct ventilation helps to reduce the risk of calf pneumonia picture

The early signs of pneumonia can be difficult to spot even for the most experienced herdsmen. An elevated temperature (above 39.5°C) is the first sign of pneumonia taking hold, which can occur days before other clinical signs2,3.

Clinical signs of pneumonia include:

Infographics of the signs of pneumonia

The Cost of Pneumonia

Cost estimates of pneumonia vary between £43 per dairy calf and £82 per affected suckler calf, with costs rising significantly when re-treatments are required4. Some of the costs, such as treatment and calf mortality, are highly visible at the time of an outbreak. Others, such as the impact on growth rates, are harder to quantify, but significant nonetheless.

Costs associated with a pneumonia outbreak4
Costs associated with a pneumonia outbreak4

Cost of pneumonia to dairy herds:

Pneumonia is the most common cause of death and poor performance in dairy cattle under one year of age5 with 14.5% of dairy heifers failing to reach their first lactation due to pneumonia6
Pneumonia is the most common cause of death and poor performance in dairy cattle under one year of age5 with 14.5% of dairy heifers failing to reach their first lactation due to pneumonia6
Cost per case: minimum of £43.25 per sick calf with an added cost of £29.58 per calf for the rest of the in contact group7
Cost per case: minimum of £43.25 per sick calf with an added cost of £29.58 per calf for the rest of the in contact group7
Daily live weight gains targeting 0.8kg/day can drop to 0.4kg/day and may never recover completely increasing lifetime costs and reducing efficiency of production7
Daily live weight gains targeting 0.8kg/day can drop to 0.4kg/day and may never recover completely increasing lifetime costs and reducing efficiency of production7
Dairy heifers have an average reduction in first lactation milk production of 150kg, a 30 day increase in time to first calving and reduction of bodyweight at 14 months of 29kg8
Dairy heifers have an average reduction in first lactation milk production of 150kg, a 30 day increase in time to first calving and reduction of bodyweight at 14 months of 29kg8

Cost of pneumonia to beef herds:

Over 70 percent of cattle had lung damage at slaughter despite only 35 percent being treated for pneumonia, showing that those with clinical disease are only the tip of the iceberg. Animals with lung damage had a lower growth rate vs. those with healthy lungs coming in 21kg lighter9
Over 70 percent of cattle had lung damage at slaughter despite only 35 percent being treated for pneumonia, showing that those with clinical disease are only the tip of the iceberg. Animals with lung damage had a lower growth rate vs. those with healthy lungs coming in 21kg lighter9
48 percent of cattle had lung damage derived from pneumonia and this was shown to reduce live weight gain by up to 6kg per month. Even fairly low levels of lung damage resulted in poorer carcass quality10
48 percent of cattle had lung damage derived from pneumonia and this was shown to reduce live weight gain by up to 6kg per month. Even fairly low levels of lung damage resulted in poorer carcass quality10
Increased risk of losses in 12-18 month cattle if infected by pneumonia as a young calf4
Increased risk of losses in 12-18 month cattle if infected by pneumonia as a young calf4
A study of 1,239 cattle across 71 finishing units showed that finishing time can be delayed by 33-59 days for cattle with pneumonia and those not showing clinical signs but simply housed with cattle with pneumonia11
A study of 1,239 cattle across 71 finishing units showed that finishing time can be delayed by 33-59 days for cattle with pneumonia and those not showing clinical signs but simply housed with cattle with pneumonia11

Preventing Pneumonia

The RUMA Targets Task Force has identified calf pneumonia as a key disease area in which to reduce the use of antibiotics. Preventing pneumonia taking hold is the best way of reducing antibiotic use.

The aim of pneumonia prevention is to support a calf’s immune system and reduce exposure to stress through good husbandry. While the risk of disease can never be fully eliminated, implementing preventive measures can reduce the impact of disease.

Focus areas to increase resistance to pneumonia:

  • Good colostrum management
  • Vaccination
  • Low stocking density
  • Low housing humidity
  • Adequate ventilation
  • Avoiding extremes of temperature
  • Good nutrition
  • Separating age groups
  • Sound hygiene
  • Minimising stress when transporting or weaning

Vaccination

Vaccination is a cost-effective tool to help protect against pneumonia by increasing an individual calf’s immunity and reducing the amount of circulating pathogen in the environment.

Pneumonia vaccination is associated with higher heifer weights at 8 months as vaccinated calves weighed over 45kg more than unvaccinated calves5.

Many vaccines are available to protect against pneumonia. Ask your vet which ones are right for your herd. Selecting the correct vaccine to protect the right age calves against specific pathogens is critical. 

If you have an outbreak of pneumonia it is important to act quickly. Your vet can help you implement a treatment and management protocol specific to your farm’s requirements.

Information sheet detailing the causes and signs of pneumonia
Information sheet detailing to prevent and treat pneumonia

References

  1. NADIS (http://www.nadis.org.uk/bulletins/respiratory-disease-in-dairy-and-beef-rearer-units.aspx
  2. Timsit et al., Proceedings EBC, Marseilles, 2009
  3. Wolfger et al. (2015) A Systematic Review of Bovine Respiratory Disease Diagnosis Focused on Diagnostic Confirmation, Early Detection, and Prediction of Unfavorable Outcomes in Feedlot Cattle. Veterinary Clinics of North America Food Animal 31, 351–365
  4. Andrews AH, BCVA Spring 2000. Vol. 8, Part 2.
  5. Welsh Dairy Heifer Report (2015) Hybu Cig Cymru 
  6. Brickell, J.S., McGowan, M.M., Pfeiffer, D.U., Wathes, D.C. (2009) Mortality in Holstein-Friesian calves and replacement heifers, in relation to body-weight and IGF-1 concentration, on 19 farms in England. Animal 3, 1175–1182
  7. Andrews A.H. (2000) Calf pneumonia costs. Cattle Practice Vol 8 Part 2, 109-114
  8. Van Der Fels-Klerx HJ, Saatkamp HW, Verhoeff J and Dijkhuizen AA (2002). Effects of bovine respiratory disease on the productivity of dairy heifers quantified by experts, Livestock Production Science 75(2): 157-166.
  9. Wittum, T.E., Woollen N.E., Perino, L.J. Littledyke, E.T. (1996) Relationships among treatment for respiratory tract disease, pulmonary lesions evident at slaughter and rate of weight gain in feedlot cattle. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 209
  10. Williams, P. and Green, Laura E. (2007) Associations between lung lesions and grade and estimated daily live weight gain in bull beef at slaughter. In: 3rd Flagship Congress British-Cattle-Veterinary-Association, Glasgow, Scotland, 2007. Published in: Cattle Practice, Vol.15 (No.3). pp. 244-249.
  11. Barielle, S et al (2008). Impact of respiratory disorders in young bulls on performance and profitability. Rencontres Recherches Ruminants 15: 77-80