The most recent NAHMS data estimates that 12.4% of dairy pre-weaned and 5.9% of post-wean calves develop pneumonia. That’s a lot of calves! I recently attended a calf conference and learned a few things I feel are valuable to know.

1. Calves’ lungs are anatomically handicapped. The adult cow is only one tenth as efficient at extracting oxygen as the horse. In fact most mammals, including horses, dogs, cats, goats and humans, have more oxygen exchanging efficiency than cows. The cow and calf has to work way harder to exchange oxygen!

2. Because of its anatomical handicaps, calves are more likely to get respiratory disease from any stressor. We often talk about “bad air”, but “bad air” is responsible for pneumonia only about 1/4 – 1/3 of the time. Think about other things too – when was the last time you washed your waterers? Do you have good water on your operation? Have you tested it? What nutritional stressors exist for your calves? How about sanitation protocols on your calf ranch? Have you reviewed those with a veterinarian or industry expert to make sure you’re doing it right?

3. The calf’s pneumonia lesions do not go away. Now imagine that calf with a severe lung infection. Maybe it now only has 50% of its lung capacity. Now rather than it being 1/10th efficient, now it’s 1/20th efficient. This 50% efficiency is not temporary. It lasts throughout the calf’s life.

4. Calf pneumonia pathogens get lots of free rides on water droplets in the air. Bacterial pathogens such as mycoplasma and pasteurella ride through the air on water droplets. This means that humidity is its friend and not yours. This is why humidity can cause your calves to break with pneumonia. All of that water just helped the bug spread to the next calf!

5. Calf pneumonia pathogens are expert hiders in biofilms. Biofilms are layers of organic matter where bacteria hide within. These are areas that are often hard to clean and will even withstand some disinfectants. The expert hider in the calf pneumonia world is mycoplasma. This is why it’s important to have a good cleaning protocol for your calves. Remember, cleanliness for calves isn’t only a scour problem. Their nose is located directly above their mouth. What enters into their mouth is also likely entering the respiratory system.

Call 507-343-0386 for help with respiratory disease on your calf ranch or dairy operation.

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