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How to prevent pneumonia in dairy calves

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Pneumonia continues to lead to financial losses for farmers rearing dairy calves. But a better understanding of risk factors can improve control and help reduce reliance on antibiotics.

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Vet John Yarwood from Nantwich Farm Vets, Cheshire, says: “Pneumonia is a disease of the lungs and is caused by interaction between the calf, its immunity, infectious bugs and the environment. “Cattle are particularly affected by pneumonia because they have relatively small lung capacity for their size and any disease damage causes problems.

 

“Dairy calves are susceptible to pneumonia from a very young age and the disease is extremely common. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any farm rearing dairy calves which has never had first-hand experience of this financially damaging disease.”

 

Financial losses include deaths, high veterinary, labour and treatment costs and, significantly, depressed subsequent growth and milking performance in animals which appear to have recovered from the disease.

 

Dairy cows only reach breakeven point halfway through their second lactation, but if they had pneumonia as a calf they may never pay back. When it comes to managing the pneumonia threat, the best form of defence is attack through good preparation and drawing up sound disease prevention protocols and, on many units, this means the implementation of a vaccination strategy.

 

Mr Yarwood says: “Disease prevention should be your aim to stop pneumonia gaining a foothold on your unit. This way you will rear more resilient, faster growing dairy calves and minimise antibiotic treatments.

 

“Reactive treatment is not ideal anyway for optimum disease control, because permanent lung damage may already have occurred by the time y o u notice a sick calf, and this certainly compromises growth performance.

 

“We know if a dairy heifer calf puts on 1kg/day instead of 0.5kg/ day, it will produce an extra 1000 litres of milk in a lifetime.” He adds that many factors combine to cause pneumonia problems, such as calf housing ventilation, stress, infection pressure and calf immunity, for example.

 

Mr Yarwood says: “Mixing different age groups can also cause problems, because older calves tend to be carriers of viruses or bacteria and pass these on to younger calves, so the tighter the age group the better. Consequently, thorough disinfection of shared feeding equipment is important.”

 

Young calves are certainly more susceptible in damp, humid conditions.

 

He says: “If it is cold and draughty, their immune system will be depressed, so you need to feed more to help them resist potential infections.

 

“An adequate intake of good quality colostrum is vital too for all calves, and you should also consider vaccination when animals are young to help boost their immune system.”

 

Mr Yarwood advises dairy calf rearers to work closely with their vet on a rigorous appraisal of all the potential pneumonia risk factors which may be involved on-farm.

 

He says: “Only once you have done this can you implement the optimum disease prevention plan for the future, which will certainly improve long-term animal health and potentially even reduce reliance on antibiotics to control this disease.”

 

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Proactive prevention rather than cure

Proactive prevention rather than cure

Nantwich Farm Vets proactively helps dairy clients improve pneumonia disease management as one part of comprehensive service initiative.

 

Jess Tonks manages the Vet Tech Service, which provides practical on-farm support alongside veterinary input. Help with tasks such as record-keeping, heifer weighing against pre-set targets, mobility scoring and ensuring vaccine protocols are followed correctly are all part of the service.

 

She says: “We visit farms fortnightly and carry out a number of practical jobs. Quite often our clients do not even know we have been there, but they really appreciate the proactive input.

 

“It is another pair of eyes to help monitor stock and keep things on track when they are busy with other things around the farm.

 

“We have also been trained to collate antibiotic usage for pneumonia treatment and this helps identify units which may have a significant disease management problem. When we are on-farm, we record calf births, weigh stock, and take samples, if necessary.

 

“If a unit is implementing a vaccination regime, we will makes sure all calves born on-farm get vaccinated correctly and at the right age. Essentially, we attend to make sure nothing gets forgotten.”

Colostrum

Vaccinated calves need fewer treatments

In a large-scale veal study in the Netherlands , the Dutch Product Board Livestock and Meat studied the efficacy of vaccination with Bovilis® Bovipast RSP in reducing the mean antibiotic treatment days per animal. There were 40 veal farms with an average capacity of 740 calves per unit enrolled in the study.

 

Animals which were vaccinated in the trial needed 15% fewer antibiotics than those which received no disease protection. treatment now gaining significant momentum, Mr Yarwood urges many of his dairy farmer clients to consider broad-spectrum vaccination of young calves against pneumonia. This will help boost animal health and potentially reduce antibiotic use.

 

“The infectious cause of any pneumonia outbreak can be difficult to pinpoint to a single agent. There are a number of viruses and even bacteria which cause pneumonia in cattle, but the vaccines available contain the key causal agents. Studies have also shown vaccinated calves need fewer antibiotic treatments.

 

“As vets, it is vital we do everything we can to help the industry reduce its reliance on antimicrobials. The antibiotics we have available to us are precious and we need to conserve their use.

 

“Implementing strategies, such as vaccination, to prevent pneumonia is one key area we can make a big difference. “Most pneumonia is caused by viruses.

 

But antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, so you are only really treating secondary infections when you use them.

 

“The lung damage is done, so we must shift pneumonia disease management focus to prevention rather than cure.

 

“Mycoplasma infections are also becoming more prevalent, so when investigating pneumonia outbreaks it is important to rule these out, as vaccination will not be a silver bullet in these situations.”

 

The work showed vaccination reduced antibiotic usage on-farm and hence pneumonia treatment costs, reinforcing the message disease prevention really is better than cure.

 

REFERENCES 1 A.Vahl, H. Bekman and J. van Riel. Report of the Veal Calf Vaccination Study with Bovilis® Bovipast RSP. Published by the Dutch Product Board Livestock and Meat (PW), January 2014.

“On any unit, the first step is make sure newborn calves gain passive transfer of immunity from their mother by giving them enough good quality colostrum early on.

 

“This is the key to unlocking better calf health. On dairy units, I advise clients not to leave calves on the cow and rely on them sucking colostrum from the mother.

 

“A big percentage of calves do not suck at all, so you have to rely on other intake methods, such as bottle feeding or tubing. “As a minimum, make sure newborn calves receive 10% of their own bodyweight within the first six hours of life, ideally sooner if you can. And milk the cow as quickly as possible to get the best possible colostrum.”

 

Mr Yarwood says you can check if your calves are getting enough colostrum by asking your vet to blood test a few animals before they are a week old.

 

He says: “Correct colostrum intake is so fundamental to good calf health, it is well worth making sure your rearing protocol is working. If your calf blood test results tell you it isn’t, find out why not.”

 

With the industry drive to reduce widespread reliance on antibiotic In a large-scale veal study in the Netherlands1 , the Dutch Product Board Livestock and Meat studied the efficacy of vaccination with Bovilis® Bovipast RSP in reducing the mean antibiotic treatment days per animal.

 

There were 40 veal farms with an average capacity of 740 calves per unit enrolled in the study. Animals which were vaccinated in the trial needed 15% fewer antibiotics than those which received no disease protection.

 

Treatment now gaining significant momentum, Mr Yarwood urges many of his dairy farmer clients to consider broad-spectrum vaccination of young calves against pneumonia.

 

This will help boost animal health and potentially reduce antibiotic use.

 

“The infectious cause of any pneumonia outbreak can be difficult to pinpoint to a single agent. There are a number of viruses and even bacteria which cause pneumonia in cattle, but the vaccines available contain the key causal agents. Studies have also shown vaccinated calves need fewer antibiotic treatments.

 

“As vets, it is vital we do everything we can to help the industry reduce its reliance on antimicrobials. The antibiotics we have available to us are precious and we need to conserve their use. “Implementing strategies, such as vaccination, to prevent pneumonia is one key area we can make a big difference.

 

“Most pneumonia is caused by viruses. But antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, so you are only really treating secondary infections when you use them.

 

“The lung damage is done, so we must shift pneumonia disease management focus to prevention rather than cure.

 

“Mycoplasma infections are also becoming more prevalent, so when investigating pneumonia outbreaks it is important to rule these out, as vaccination will not be a silver bullet in these situations.”

System changes renews focus on prevention

System changes renews focus on prevention

Richard says: “We have been going through various stock and management system changes recently, all designed to make the job a lot simpler for us, but the help we get from Nantwich’s Vet Tech team is absolutely fantastic.

 

“Their record-keeping is superb and when we have so much else going on their input is fast becoming essential.”

 

Richard, who farms in partnership with his parents and brother David, runs 450 milking cows for the family business at Top O’the Town Farm, Broomhall, near Nantwich. The family also runs another farm near Sandbach and bought a hill unit a mile away from Top O’the Town in 2013 to house youngstock, giving them just under 405 hectares (1000 acres) in total.

 

Over the years, the Davenports have progressively developed the units and invested in the farm infrastructure to try and get the best out of cows and their various holdings. The latest project is a move from all-year-round to block calving, together with a move away from Holstein Friesians to the use of Scandanavian g e n e t i c s , which are renowned for their health traits, and Montbeliardes for their cheese production credentials.

 

Richard says: “We are selling our milk to Joseph Heler, which sources milk locally within a 45-mile radius of its cheese production plant in Nantwich. We are paid primarily for improving constituents rather than volume.”

 

With the way the industry is changing, the Davenport family sat down last June and realised they had to do something different.

 

Richard says: “I have always wanted to move to block calving, both to give us a break and to allow us to focus on other things during the rest of the year. “And with 42 grass paddocks to graze spread about the area, cows often have to walk five or six miles a day, so we really need those robust health traits.”

 

The target now is to calve the 450-cow herd between August 1 and November each year, aiming for an average annual cow yield of 8500 litres with 4500 litres coming from forage. All milking cows go out to grass in a block in spring to make best use of available grazing.

 

With the move to block calving, the Davenports have had to plan for the inevitable increased stocking pressure from having a lot of calves on the ground at any one time.

 

Richard says: “Where we previously had to cope with 30-40 calves a month, by Christmas we will potentially have 400 in one place.

 

"Unfortunately, our buildings are not great for rearing calves and we have had a lot of pneumonia problems in the past, particularly between four and six weeks of age.

 

“At one point, we were losing quite a few calves and mortality was running at 5-6%, which we felt we could improve upon. “Consequently, we have made a big investment in calf hutches and vaccination, which has made a tremendous difference.

 

Negligible

 

“Now, our pneumonia incidence is negligible, and with the management system we now have in place, and with the help of Jess Tonks from the Nantwich Vet Tech team, I am quite confident we will be able to cope with the greater number of calves we will have on the farms later this year.”

 

Richard credits calf vaccination and the wider veterinary input from the Nantwich Farm Vets team for turning around their entire heifer calf rearing operation.

 

He says: “Over the last two years, the team has helped make a massive difference to our productivity. Previously, we were calving heifers down at 27 months, but now they are calving at 23 months.

 

“This is essentially because they are staying disease-free and really hitting early life growth rate targets.

 

“We must secure and maintain this performance level through and beyond the move to block calving.”

On-farm support

When Jess Tonks or another member of the three-strong Nantwich Vet Tech team visits Top O’the Town Farm every two weeks, the first thing they do is check the calving record.

 

Any new calves born which are two weeks old are vaccinated with Bovilis® Bovipast RSP, which protects them against the key viral causes of pneumonia RSV and PI3, as well as the prevalent bacterial causal agent Mannheimia haemolytica.

 

Interestingly, data collected by UK veterinary laboratories between 2011 and 2013 found this bacterium was the most commonly isolated pneumonia pathogen in calves under six months of age1 .

 

It cropped up in about 30% of samples. The vaccination regime requires two 5ml doses under the skin about four weeks apart. Immunity to RSV, PI3 and Mannheimia haemolytica develops about two weeks after the priming dose of the vaccine.

 

Richard says: “This support really is invaluable. We now know every calf born on-farm will get protected. It is also great peace of mind to know nothing is being missed. It is a great service.”

 

Calves stay in the hutches until they are 21 days old and are then moved onto another farm where they will be kept in batches of 20 and fed seven litres/day of milk via a computerised feeder. They are weaned at about 68 days of age when eating 1.5kg/ day concentrate feed. Growing heifers will be turned out in March and graze until October.

 

In autumn 2018, the whole group will be synchronised at 14- 15 months of age and served, half of them with sexed semen and the other half with conventional semen. Bulls will then go in after five days to mop up any not in calf.

 

Richard says: “It is all about focus. The way we are gearing things up means we can focus on one key job at a time, which helps with attention to detail.

 

“To be successful as a modern dairy farmer, you have to invest wisely and maximise production potential.

 

“To do this, you simply cannot afford to compromise animal health. I am a big believer in good records, monitoring performance and using tools such as vaccination to prevent disease.

 

“Our recent experience has shown just how effective it can be when it is done properly in tandem with good stockmanship.”

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