Summer pneumonia in the beef herd

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Over the past several years, respiratory disease in pre-weaned calves on pasture has been increasingly identified in beef herds. These outbreaks tend to be unpredictable, occurring in well-managed herds as well as in not-so-well-managed herds. As such, they are frustrating for cattle producers and veterinarians alike.

Based on submissions to the SDSU veterinary diagnostic lab, the infectious agents associated with summer calf pneumonia cases are similar to those implicated in typical post-weaning bovine respiratory disease complex. Bacteria such as Mannheimia haemolytica, Histophilus somni, Pasteurella multocida, and sometimes Mycoplasma bovis are found in summer pneumonia calves. Viruses implicated include Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis Virus [IBRV] and Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus [BRSV]. Bovine coronavirus has frequently been found in nasal swabs from affected calves, but much more needs to be known about the role it plays in summer pneumonia.

Despite this knowledge, a specific diagnosis in an outbreak isn’t obtained all that often. For one thing, calves aren’t always available to post and work up for diagnosis. This is because typical summer pneumonia outbreaks do not exhibit high death losses. In light of this, veterinarians will often take nasal swabs from affected calves to isolate infectious agents. These results need to be interpreted with caution, however. Bacteria and viruses present in the nasal passages might not accurately reflect what’s going on down in the lungs.

Signs of respiratory disease in pre-weaned calves do not always include breathing problems such as cough or rapid respirations, although those signs may become more obvious when the herd is trailed or otherwise moved. Sluggishness, a reluctance to keep up with the herd, and drooping of ears are commonly noted. Many affected calves will have high fevers.

Most producers and veterinarians report that treating calves with summer pneumonia is frequently successful. A variety of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications have been used with good recovery rates. While these treatments enjoy a high degree of success, they are of course difficult to apply to individual calves in pasture situations. In cases late in the grazing season, pre-weaning vaccinations, along with antibiotics, can be administered to all calves if a high proportion of the herd is affected.

Compared to the post-weaning bovine respiratory disease encountered by animals entering the backgrounding lot or feedlot, little is known about the risk factors that predispose calves to pneumonia while on pasture. Some of the factors that have been speculated include:

  • Poor colostrum intake as a newborn calf
  • Exposure of calves to older calves (such as feedlot animals) shedding high levels of infectious agents (but not necessarily sick themselves)
  • Dusty conditions that interfere with the respiratory tract’s normal defense mechanisms
  • Adverse weather conditions
  • Crowding and separation from mothers for prolonged periods of time, such as during breeding or synchronization.

Vaccines against respiratory pathogens at branding or turnout time have been utilized more and more by cattle producers in an attempt to reduce the occurrence of calf pneumonia on pasture. While this is successful for many, outbreaks of calf pneumonia occur in well-vaccinated herds as well.

Vaccines that include IBRV, BRSV, Parainfluenza-3, and Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus (BVDV) are used to boost immunity against these viral pathogens that set up the calf for more severe bacterial problems. These vaccines are available in killed as well as modified-live virus versions. Intranasal vaccines are also a popular choice in calves at this age, as they are believed to offer good local immunity in the nasal passages, and stimulate a good overall immunity in young calves. Furthermore, some beef herds vaccinate against bacterial pneumonia pathogens such as Mannheimia haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida, and Mycoplasma bovis in turnout programs. Producers should seek veterinary input for their branding time or turnout vaccine program, especially when changes in products or timing are contemplated.

Since much remains to be learned about the factors contributing to pre-weaning calf pneumonia, SDSU has partnered with three other universities in a three-year case control study of herds that have experienced summer pneumonia. Study herds simply answer questions over the phone about their herd. We hope your summer is proceeding without any sick calves, but if you experience an outbreak and would like to help us learn more about this problem, please contact Dr. Russ Daly or 605.688.6589.


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