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0509 PD: Protecting your most precious investment: Early detection and proper treatment of dairy calf pneumonias

Larry Hawkins Published on 13 March 2009

Bovine respiratory disease, more commonly referred to as dairy calf pneumonia, is a leading cause of death in pre-weaning calves.

Surviving animals are at risk for reduced growth rate which may lead to culling before calving and lower milk production later in life. Even with the cost of replacement heifers second only to feed costs and the viability of dairy operations at stake, dairy calf pneumonia is still often ignored or downplayed on dairy farms as producers are more concerned with milk production and reproductive issues.One of the leading factors directly linked to the development of pneumonia is stress. Events such as weaning, virus exposure, shipping, processing, feed changes, overcrowding and bad weather can all raise stress levels, making calves more susceptible. Pneumonia initially develops in the bottom of one lung and moves upward before advancing into the other lung. The average infection can contaminate as much as 10 percent of lung tissue a day if left untreated, and some of the faster-spreading and more aggressive cases can cause death in as few as one to two days.

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Early diagnosis and proper treatment can significantly reduce the damage to the lungs and protect calves. When treated with antibiotics in the early stages, most calves make a full recovery. Dairy producers must emphasize to their staffs the importance of quickly identifying early signs of pneumonia and taking the appropriate action to fight the disease.

For dairy producers to prevent, identify and begin treating pneumonia, they must:

1. Reduce stressors as much as possible
Try to limit the number of housing moves for each calf, do not overcrowd (this adds stress and facilitates the spread of infection) and make any feed changes as gradual as possible to allow the calf to adjust.

2. Know the symptoms

  • fever
  • slower or reduced food consumption
  • ocular discharge
  • cough, nasal discharge or labored breathing
  • head tilt
  • weakness, inability or reluctance to rise

3. Appoint a staff member to inspect calves on a daily basis
Noticing day-to-day changes in the behavior of calves is essential. Assign a staff member who has daily interactions with each animal the task of documenting behavior. Frequent rotation of caregivers leads to misdiagnosis or ignoring symptoms until in late stages, so it is vital that the same person look after the same calves each day.

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4. Work with a veterinarian
Your veterinarian can help you establish a proper treatment program for your animals. With the appropriate level of preparedness, the speed of treatment will increase, which is crucial in controlling the damage caused by pneumonia.

With early detection and proper treatment of pneumonia, dairy producers will protect their most important investment – their calves. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

Larry Hawkins for Progressive Dairyman

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