Guard Calves Against Respiratory Disease

Posted on November 2, 2012 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
From Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus Calf Products Coordinator

Respiratory disease is a leading cause of mortality in calves under six months of age. In addition to death loss, respiratory disease causes other economic losses, such as high treatment costs, reduced growth rate, delayed calving and increased culling.

Respiratory disease is an infection caused by inflammation and damage to the calf’s lungs. Symptoms often include a temperature higher than 103 degrees F, increased respiratory rates, reduced feed intake, coughing, nasal discharge and depression. Early detection is essential to be successful with any therapy. Identifying the causative agent is important. Most cases eventually have some bacterial involvement and antibiotics can be of some value.

Common bacterial pathogens include Pasteurella multocida, Mannheimia (formerlyPasteurella) hemolytica, Haemophilus somnus and Mycoplasma. Viral pathogens include Parainfluenza, Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR), Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus (BVDV) and, less commonly, Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus.

Prevention and early detection
Vaccination helps control organisms that cause respiratory diseases. A quality vaccination program should be designed by the producer and veterinarian, tailored specifically to target local pathogens. For the best early detection program, develop a system to monitor the calf’s respiratory health. Key items to monitor include:

  • Age
  • Temperature
  • Respiratory rate
  • Eye and nasal discharge
  • Fecal score
  • Milk, starter and water intake
  • Overall appearance of individual calves
  • Other key factors
    • Bedding type
    • Poorly ventilated housing
    • Drastic changes in temperature
    • Nutritional stress

Bedding and housing
A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of VeterinaryMedicine found most calves in the Midwest do not have sufficient bedding to allow for nesting. Appropriate “nesting” is accomplished when a calf is lying down and 2/3 of the calf’s legs have disappeared in the bedding. Long, clean straw is the best source of bedding in cold temperatures.

It is very important to keep calves dry and free of fecal matter.  When determining if bedding is dry use the “knee test.” Kneel in the bedding for 30 seconds; your knee should be dry when you stand up. If not, the bedding is too wet.  Keeping the bedding dry will reduce airborne bacteria at the calf level.

Use clean bedding, free of dust and mold. Avoid using shavings and sawdust with young calves and in maternity pens. These contain high amount of dust and small particles that are irritants to lungs and navels. Eliminate dust as much as possible when bedding pens or remove the cattle until the dust and small particles have settled.

Individual enclosed calf pens have been designed to prevent drafts and can inadvertently create highly polluted microenvironments of airborne bacteria associated with respiratory disease. Using solid panels between calves, but keeping the front and back of individual stalls open can help to reduce high bacteria pollution. A well ventilated facility will allow for ample air flow and reduce drafts.

When evaluating a facility, check ventilation and air quality at the calf level, approximately 12 to 14 inches above bedding.

Nutrition and calf comfort
Reducing nutritional stress to the calf can limit or prevent its immune system’s susceptibility to disease.  Underfeeding calves in cold temperatures will suppress the calf’s immune system. Providing fresh water along with high quality milk replacer and starter will deliver the nutrition needed to maintain good health.

Calf comfort plays an important role in raising healthy calves. Comfortable calves have the ability to utilize the nutrients for growth and are able to ward off environmental stresses more effectively.

Always move transition calves into a well-bedded and properly ventilated area. Provide adequate resting space and don’t overcrowd transition pens. Allowing adequate bunk space for all calves in transition pens will increase intakes and ensure struggling calves the opportunity to eat.  Don’t forget to clean waterers regularly.

It is best not to move calves into an area with older animals, make rapid feed changes, vaccinate or cause stress on moving day. Limit change and make transitions slowly. Calf movement and introduction to other animals can be extremely stressful and should be done only when calves are at optimal health.

Category: Animal health
Starting Strong - Calf Care