20th August 2021

How to prevent pneumonia in calves

Cases of pneumonia in calves can be prevented by creating a warm and dry environment with good air flow. This is achieved by ventilating the shed so it is neither musty nor chilly.

Why is ventilation important to calf health

Pneumonia is an infectious disease which can be caused by several types of viruses and bacteria. The disease results in 14.5% of dairy heifers failing to make it to first lactation¹, while in beef calves the lung damage caused by pneumonia infection can reduce weight gain by up to 6kg per month². As a disease of the lungs, infection commonly spreads between calves which are sharing the same airspace rather than relying on physical contact between animals.

In an inadequately ventilated calf shed, the air will typically recirculate around the shed so calves continuously inhale the same air, increasing the risk of bacteria or viruses entering calves’ lungs. An over ventilated shed can also cause problems, especially in winter, as the chilled environment will lead to calves using more energy to maintain body temperature leading to poorer growth rates and weaker immune systems. The secret to promote calf health through ventilation is to create a continuous flow of fresh air without draughts.

How to improve ventilation in calf sheds

Mechanical ventilation systems can improve air flow and quality. Cumbria based dairy farmer Jonathan Philipson rears all calves from his 200-cow milking herd on-farm. He previously had challenges with pneumonia in calves post weaning.

“The shed which I wean calves into was designed for older stock and wasn’t fit for purpose for calves. Every winter I was seeing roughly two new cases of pneumonia each week, which was expensive to treat and was having an ongoing impact on growth rates.”

After a particularly severe winter in 2019-2020, Jonathan decided to install a VentTube Fresh system to improve the environment of his calf shed. It was designed specifically with his set-up in mind, based on its length, height and number of calves typically within the airspace.

The system brings fresh air in from outside and delivers it at calf height. Air is also able to pass back out of the building, and a smoke bomb test carried out by Jonathan’s vet after the addition on the new ventilation system showed that the air cleared quickly as it was not static or recirculating within the shed.

“I’d say it’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made. It has transformed the feel of the shed as there’s no longer any stale air or the smell of ammonia lingering. The calves are eating more and achieving good growth rates without getting the setback which comes with pneumonia.”

In terms of numbers, Jonathan has had over 180 calves go through the shed since installing the VentTube Fresh system in October 2020. Only five have had pneumonia.

Additional pneumonia prevention strategies

Optimising ventilation is a very effective way of preventing pneumonia in calves. There are also other strategies which can help farmers go a step further to prevent disease and give calves the best start possible.

  • Colostrum management – to promote effective immunity
  • Separate calves into age groups – to reduce disease spread from older to younger calves
  • Introduce isolation pens – isolate any calves with pneumonia into a different airspace to prevent spread to healthy calves
  • Minimise stress at weaning – combining other procedures like dehorning with weaning can cause stress, which makes calves vulnerable to infections
  • Vaccination – to protect against specific bacteria or viruses causing disease that can suppress the immune system

There are a number of sources of information and advice available to help prevent pneumonia in calves by optimising ventilation. Galebreaker or your vet will be able to support with assessing air flow and quality, or contact us to find out about tailored solutions for your calf shed.

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¹ 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.
² 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.