Profit from Preventing Pneumonia

Calf Pneumonia

Calf pneumonia costs the UK cattle industry millions every year and is of huge financial significance. These losses arise from the cost of treatment, reduced weight gain, increased labour and most significantly from calf deaths. Calf pneumonia is one of the most common causes of illness and poor performance in housed calves from one to five months old.

What causes pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a multifactorial disease and can often be the result of viruses (IBR PI3 & RSV) and bacteria (mycoplasma) attacking the calves’ respiratory tract, this is often facilitated by:

  • Poor ventilation
  • Inadequate colostrum management
  • Wind speed
  • Cold stress
  • Underfeeding
  • Poor weaning management
  • Mixing age groups
    Source: Volac, 2017.

Any of these stresses can trigger bacteria and viruses to multiply and result in pneumonia.


What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

There are many clinical signs of pneumonia but as with all illnesses the sooner it is caught the less severe the symptoms can be. The first signs of disease are an unwillingness to eat. This is where automatic feeders really come into their own as they can detect if a calf is drinking less or more slowly well before any clinical signs occur. Other symptoms include; elevated temperature, faster respiratory rate, dull , rough coat, nasal discharge and coughing. Unfortunately, once these symptoms are seen often the damage to the lungs is already done.


What is the cost of pneumonia?

The cost of a pneumonia outbreak can be easily overlooked, however, it is very rarely a one-off cost for the treatment. Calves that suffer from pneumonia often have long term lung damage and a dramatic reduction in DLWG and lifetime performance.  Costs put together by Farmers Weekly estimate that pneumonia costs £80million to the industry, £43-£84 per single infected animal, £104 for every re treatment, and £297 in yield loss over two lactations when a calf has suffered one bout of pneumonia (dairy calves) and long term impact on weight gain and carcass grading (beef calves).

Calf health should be recorded and decisions made about future profitability. Is it time to look to the sheep industry for inspiration and begin operating a notch system? i.e. for each treatment she gets a notch in her ear tag, then after two treatments she is culled.


Pneumonia control through vaccination should be discussed with your vet although vaccination will only be effective alongside good stockmanship. Risks can be reduced through management practices.

  1. Ensure adequate colostrum intake; 4L of good quality colostrum within two hours of life.
  2. Improve air quality in cattle sheds by reducing mixing of calves from different age groups, reduce stocking density, install ventilation systems (fans).
  3. Prevent cold stress in young calves by keeping them out of draughts (shelters or Igloos) and off cold flooring. Calf coats are very effective at keeping calves warm, as well as plenty of straw (nesting score of 3).

    Image courtesy of, with special thanks to Ken Nordlund.
  4. Ensure sufficient calorie intake in cold weather by increasing the concentration of milk powder. Calves will expend more energy keeping warm in cold weather and, therefore, will have less for growing and fighting off disease.
  5. Keep calf environment dry; humid air carries diseases causing pathogens which are breathed in by the calf. Ensure the calf housing is dry at all times and buckets should be washed away from the calf housing.


Volac, 2016, Feed for Growth, Pneumonia Factsheet

AHDB, 2016, Calf Pneumonia

Farmacy, 2015, Factsheet Pneumonia in calves

Progressive Dairy, 2016, optimizing respiratory health in calf barns.


Jess Charlton
Wynnstay Calf Specialist – Shropshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire

Follow Jess on Twitter @charltoncalf1.

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