Farming Tips and Advice – Videos and Blogs from Tommy the Vet

Weanling Pneumonia can we do better?

Can we do better?

Nuzzling in for a less frequent suckle, feeling good to have got to this point in life. Avoiding scours, pneumonia and a having got a worm dose 2 weeks ago. If you could talk to this calf you might say ‘don’t count your chickens’ you have probably some of your biggest challenges ahead.

The milk it has suckled on to grow to this point isn’t as plentiful but a concentrate feed introduced 3 weeks ago is a welcome introduction to the menu.

Why is weaning such a challenge for the suckler calf?

Natural weaning could take up to a year or longer, where the cow will naturally know she can’t feed two calves and wean her own calf before the birth of the next. In our modern systems we aim to speed this process up by weaning between 7-10 months.

The creep feed a suckler calf gets in advance of weaning is really important because it encourages rumen development, is high energy and helps the calf transition from milk and forage diet to meal and forage only diet.

The objective is to do this by minimising where possible any drops in performance.

We talk a lot about performance in sucklers.

The key measures for me is hitting a target DLWG (daily live weight gain), minimising disease and mortality. For this reason weighing is so critical to benchmark how we are doing. It allows us to refine the system and really check performance. This is where the profit is in these tiny margins.

It can also raise some interesting questions about feed efficiency?

Weanling pneumonia

What questions can you ask yourself to see if you have problems?

Look at your mortality rates they should be below 1% in weanlings.

Check factory reports on lung tissue damage?

What is the incidence of disease, it can be easy measure this. Look at your treatments last year?

Do you find yourself using a lot of antibiotics every autumn?

What is a lot? Your vet can tell you based on stock numbers and antibiotics used

Are you treating 1 in 10 animals are you using antibiotic powders in the meal every year?

The problem is these are all very direct costs but are really minimal compared to the true losses of performance which ultimately hits you in your pocket your profit.

These figures are warning bells that the system needs reviewing.


‘Sure the antibiotics work when I need them’!

Will you always have them?

Will buyers be ever increasingly looking for antibiotic free produce?

Probably yes

Is AMR (ANTIMICROBIAL Resistance) an issue?

Yes a very serious one in reality but it is creating huge perceptions and even miss perceptions about the industry.



Stress affects performance?

You’re saying ‘what a silly statement’ we all know this?

We know it but we still see pneumonia as one of the main reasons for mortality and under performance in our weanlings in the autumn time. It is easier to complain about the factors outside of the farm gate that make suckler farming so difficult. We can’t control these outside factors, this is the harsh reality of farming. We can only control what is inside the farm gates.

Another hidden cost is the stress disease causes for the farmer. It can be demoralising, time consuming and frustrating. With big disease outbreaks this can really impact on a family farm. We sometimes forget this, the impacts of a stressful situation in any business. It makes decision making more difficult and often erratic. We spend time chasing our tails which is good for no one.

So if we can identify stress has a huge factor in animal disease, what if the payoff for managing it was healthier animals and less stress for the farmer?


Understanding the stress factors that contribute to this disease.

For the most part it is viruses and bacteria that cause the physical pneumonia or damage to the lungs. From killing animals do doing permanent lung damage in some cases. We must remember as a species in proportion cattle have smaller lungs than most, poor thoracic space, high muscle volume and a high metabolism.

These lungs are responsible for drawing oxygen into the blood which is vital component down to the level of the cell. With a high metabolism you require a lot of oxygen?

Anything which can impede oxygenation of blood will affect performance.

‘That animal has recovered from pneumonia’.

Have they really recovered? They often have lung damage that can slow finishing down by 40-50 days. This is because the damaged lung tissue will never heal and function normally again.

We can’t see this lung damage so we don’t think about it?

This is again why there is huge value in measuring DLWG, the scales don’t lie (of course unless there not calibrated).


Sometimes we focus too much on the pathogen, let me explain?

Most of the viruses that cause pneumonia are circulating in our herds. Most of the bacteria that cause pneumonia are commensals of the respiratory tract. Meaning these bacteria are lying there in small numbers in the upper airways and tonsils of our healthy animals.

Yes of course they cause the disease, but they usually only do so when other factors open the door and allow them to multiply. This means that the stress factors in pneumonia are so important that we reduce them.


So what factors can reduce stress?


  1. Feeding concentrates

This when done 4-6 weeks in advance of weaning allows good rumen development reducing nutritional pressure after weaning. Allowing calves to forward creep feed on good grass also helps.

  1. Housing fit for purpose

If weaning and housing at the same time there can be huge challenges or stress. Having comfortable rubber matts or straw bedding allows less pressure on stock. We should never underestimate the value in weanlings being able to lie down and cud comfortably.

Reducing stocking densities can be hugely beneficial. Most importantly getting ventilation right is key, fresh air kills pathogens and good clean airflow in sheds is vital. Of course temp and humidity can also affect the amount of infection pressure in sheds.

My experience is I very rarely say ‘you have too much fresh air in this shed’?

Two last things, weanlings can’t have enough fresh clean water in big drinkers. Water drives rumen and animal health.

What about the vented sheeting?

Don’t get me started!!!!

  1. Vaccinating

If you know your animals are at risk of pneumonia then certainly vaccination is a huge aid. We must ensure vaccines are delivered in advance of the risk period. Vaccination is all about stimulating the immune system so it is primed for the pathogens we vaccinate against. Immunity is all about memory, so when the immune system is challenged by these bacteria/viruses it can mount a good immune response. Remember vaccination alone will not solve pneumonia issues. If the infection pressure is too high or stress is severe enough it will suppress immunity or overwhelm it.

The person to plan and advise you on this is your own vet with knowledge of the disease history on farm.

  1. Reduce management factors that increase stress

Dehorning and castration at weaning dramatically increase stress and lower immunity. This can undo the potential vaccine efficacy and also opens the door for these viruses and bacteria.

When will I dehorn and castrate then?

4 weeks before or after weaning, don’t underestimate the value of an anti-inflammatory injections with these procedures.

Of course the best time to dehorn cattle is when they are calves!

  1. Watch the weather

The weather doesn’t cause pneumonia, however if there is adverse conditions in outdoor weaned calves it increases stress and opens the door to infections. One eye on long term forecast is a good idea ensuring no major weather events around weaning time can be very helpful. If it is consistently cold or warm its ok it is often weather changes cause problems.

Ideally aim to wean where weather is consistent for 5-7 days. Fine chance you say?

  1. Early treatments

Pneumonia can have lasting effects on lung tissue spotting and treating cases early can reduce its effects and lessen shedding and spreading. Talk to your vet about this, look out for signs of coughing snotty noses and high temperatures.


  1. Parasites

Its weaning time and your feeding stomach worms and the weanling?

We don’t want gut worms so checking weights and faecal egg counts can help us make better dosing decisions. If you’re dosing as standard, time the dose 3 weeks in advance of weaning.

Lungworm are now a huge issue in suckler calves. Overdosing, weather, grazing strategies are all playing into the hands of the parasite.

The problem is it can be so unpredictable. We do not want lungworm in calves at weaning. If severe it can cause problems on its own and even in low numbers can open the doors for these viruses and bacteria.

How do I know I’ve lungworm?

My own experience is that if your waiting for dung samples you might often be too late. Acting fast when coughing or clinical signs appear is my advice.



You’ve heard it all before?

Suckler farming is a business we need to get serious about measuring that business performance.

We may be forced to change?

We may not have oral antibiotics or some of these ‘stronger’ critically important antibiotics in the future. We may have to get better at managing pneumonia.

Can we do better in managing pneumonia in weanlings?

To use an old slogan ‘yes we can’

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