Prevention is always better than cure and recent research now suggests dairy farmers are pretty much unanimous in the view that preventing disease in youngstock will lead to better later life productivity.

According to the recent Herd Futures survey (spring 2021) – when 250 UK dairy farmers were asked whether disease prevention was better than treatment in this respect, 99% of respondents either strongly agreed (78%) or agreed (21%) that prevention wins hands down.

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With the days getting shorter and autumn just around the corner, it’s time to think about putting this philosophy into practice and a good place to start is to make your calf rearing operation less susceptible to pneumonia.

“With such a strong recent endorsement from dairy farmers of the value of implementing better preventative health practices on farm – and also new survey findings emerging from the Ruminant Health & Welfare Group (RH&G) suggesting Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is a key farmer concern – it makes sense to review your pneumonia vaccination protocols well before the peak disease months this winter,” says MSD Animal Health livestock veterinary adviser Dr Kat Baxter-Smith.

“New guidelines from the European Medicines Agency on the categorisation of antibiotics for prudent and responsible use in farm animals is also bringing the need for more effective disease prevention practices into even sharper focus.”

Dr Baxter-Smith says the dairy industry now has stronger guidelines on which antibiotics it can and can’t prescribe for treating calf pneumonia – and it also means vets and farmers have to follow stricter administration and recording protocols when it comes to selecting and using these valuable disease treatments.

“Far better all round to try and avoid having to use an antibiotic treatment in the first place by ensuring your immunity-led disease management plan is as thorough as it can be,” she says.

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In practice this means asking your vet to review colostrum management protocols, assess the calf rearing environment and employing innovative practical tools such as thoracic ultrasound scanning (TUS) of calf lungs to highlight potential weaknesses in dairy calf rearing systems. If lung damage is being detected in very young calves, earlier life vaccination could be considered.

“When it comes to understanding the impact of calf pneumonia on your farm, visibly sick calves may only be the tip of the iceberg,” Dr Baxter-Smith says.

“Studies have shown that only 11% to 16% of pneumonia amongst a batch of calves is clinically visible. Anywhere between 23% and 67% could be sub-clinical and therefore invisible to the naked eye, yet calf health and lifetime performance potential are still being compromised,” she says.

She adds that dairy calves sub-clinically affected with pneumonia will still have some level of performance-limiting lung damage, which means they can take longer to reach first calving age and will even produce less milk as adult cows.

“For example, the presence of pneumonia-related lung lesions in the first week of life can lead to a 509-litre decrease in milk production in the first lactation.”

Dr Baxter-Smith says that the Herd Futures survey findings highlighted nearly three quarters of farmers (73%) seeing vaccination as a critical part of disease prevention for the two most costly diseases affecting their youngstock – calf pneumonia and scours.

“Early life calf vaccination, particularly to stop pneumonia gaining a foothold on your youngstock rearing unit, can certainly help you take control when so often you are in fire-fighting mode in the winter and relying purely on restricted antibiotic treatments,” she says.

She added that MSD Animal Health offers farmers respiratory disease protection from calf to cow.