By Robert Ramsay and Lesley Wylie, beef consultants, SAC Consulting

Recent changeable weather conditions have presented a real challenge to housed cattle. We’ve experienced large temperature swings with some very muggy wet days and frosty nights which have led to perfect pneumonia conditions.

SAC vet labs have seen an increase in cases of pneumonia in recent weeks. Every disease outbreak always starts with one case, so if a problem arises, act swiftly and get an accurate diagnosis of the cause. If the outbreak is caused by mycoplasma or a virus, antibiotics will be ineffective and will simply add to the cost and risk accelerating antimicrobial resistance on your farm. Getting an accurate diagnosis, of the cause of a case of pneumonia, is very important in order to treat animals appropriately.

It is estimated that the cost of a single case of pneumonia is £82/head (made up of treatment costs, reduced weight gain, increased labour and calf deaths). Prevention is always better than treatment, especially with margins in the beef sector as challenging as they are at present.

When buying in store cattle it is important to find out the vaccination status of the animals as some may have been vaccinated prior to sale whilst many will not. With 90% of UK farms having more than one respiratory virus present in their herd, buying in cattle is a constant risk. Vaccination is not a substitute for good management but it does help to protect animals from common viruses and ultimately reduce the risk of a costly pneumonia breakdown.

Discussing a vaccination strategy with your vet is an essential part of a pneumonia prevention programme. Your vet will also be able to advise on prevention strategies as well as an appropriate course of action to take if an animal (or group of animals) starts to show symptoms of pneumonia.

The main practical ways to reduce the pneumonia risk on farms are:

1. Avoid mixing calves of different ages (especially in bought-in calves) as this allows the transmission of pathogens from older to younger cattle.

2. Keep the animals in as low stress an environment as possible, as stress increases the viral shedding by carrier animals and increases the susceptibility of other animals to the virus – main causes of stress include weaning, change in diet, transport stress, overcrowding, extreme temperature changes.

3. Use well ventilated buildings. Considerations include – size and number of air inlets and outlets, drainage, wind direction in shed. A smoke bomb test will illustrate how effective the ventilation in the shed is. In a poorly designed shed, the warm air the animal breathes out cannot escape, so it condenses and falls creating an ideal environment for pathogens to multiply. Adequate dry bedding will also help to keep humidity down. Condensation on the underside of the roof and cobwebs over the outlets are indicators of poor ventilation.

4. Create a draft free environment – needs a uniform airflow of <2m sec.

5. Clipping the backs of calves to reduce sweating will also assist with reducing humidity in the shed.

6. Try to keep dust to a minimum, if possible mix feed in a separate shed.

7. Lungworm, in grazed animals, can be the root cause of a pneumonia outbreak, appropriate anthelmintic treatment will be helpful in reducing the effect of lungworm.