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How to Prevent Pneumonia in Calves

How to Prevent Pneumonia in Calves

Calves are very susceptible to respiratory disease as their lungs are small compared to their overall body weight. A calf is growing rapidly – and the metabolic requirement of the lungs can almost outweigh their capacity.

Research shows that particular pneumonia-causing bacterial populations such as Mannheimia haemolytica are as much as seven times greater in a calf’s nose in cold weather. This can also be caused by abrupt temperature changes. A study abruptly changing the temperature from 5 degrees to 13 degrees saw the same increase in nasal bacteria despite the increase in temperature.

If this increase in challenge is the case why don’t all our calves suffer? The calf’s respiratory tract is lined with hair-like projections called Cillia. These beat rapidly to move mucus from the lower tract to the throat where it can be coughed up and swallowed.

This mucus elevator is also effected by the cold weather. In cold temperatures the mucus moves more slowly – the Cillia beat less frequently and the removal of pathogens slows down. In areas of the World where cold temperatures are common and prolonged, the calves' mechanisms adapt and cope. Where temperatures fluctuate as we have seen more recently our calves have little opportunity to adapt and, therefore, remain challenging.

Pneumonia Prevention Points


Building a robust immune system as always begins with colostrum. Fifty percent of all calf deaths are caused by poor colostrum management! So ten percent of body weight with in the first six hours is vitally important with a subsequent feed within 12 hours. All feed within the first 24 hours of life should be good quality colostrum.

Transition Milk 

Where possible the calf should be fed transition milk for up to seven days. This could be from subsequent milkings from the cow or a 50:50 mix of colostrum and milk replacer.

Milk Replacer/Whole Milk 

This needs to be meeting the additional energy requirements of cold or fluctuating temperatures, especially in calves under three weeks where milk is their only energy source. This can be achieved through a higher energy density powder or increasing the litres fed. When using a milk replacer it’s also worth looking at the level of vitamin E as this plays a role in immune function.


Bedding should be clean and dry and ideally deep enough for young calves to nest in – drainage plays a big part in maintaining drier bedding. Placing bales in larger pens can be beneficial to allow calves to manage where they position themselves. Fresh air should be available just above the calves whilst avoiding draughts at calf level. Avoid high stocking rates where possible.


Some stress is inevitable but reduce it where you can. Disbudding, weaning, changes in group, changes in diet etc should all be done separately. For example keep calves on the same starter ration and straw as they were used to pre-weaning for a week before gradually changes to a post weaning diet.


Talk to your vet about identifying the strains causing your pneumonia problem and see if you can vaccinate against it in future.

For more information or advice please contact one of our specialist from the Calf & Youngstock team


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