Cases of pneumonia in calves can be prevented by creating a warm and dry environment with good air flow, which is best achieved by making sure your sheds are properly ventilated.

Making sure the environment is neither musty nor chilly, but with the right flow of air is a must. We asked industry experts, Galebreaker, for its take on how to reduce the risks:

Why is ventilation important to calf health?

Pneumonia is an infectious disease which can be caused by several types of viruses and bacteria.

The disease results in 14.5% of dairy heifers failing to make it to first lactation, while in beef calves the lung damage caused by pneumonia infection can reduce weight gain by up to 6kg per month.

As a disease of the lungs, infection commonly spreads between calves which are sharing the same airspace rather than relying on physical contact between animals.

In an inadequately ventilated calf shed, the air will typically recirculate around the shed so calves continuously inhale the same air, increasing the risk of bacteria or viruses entering calves’ lungs.

But, an over-ventilated shed can also cause problems, especially in winter, as the chilled environment will lead to calves using more energy to maintain body temperature leading to poorer growth rates and weaker immune systems.

The secret to promote calf health through ventilation is to create a continuous flow of fresh air, but without draughts.

How can you improve ventilation in calf sheds?

Mechanical ventilation systems can improve air flow and quality. Cumbrian-based dairy farmer, Jonathan Philipson, rears all calves from his 200-cow milking herd on-farm. He previously had challenges with pneumonia in calves post weaning.

“The shed which I wean calves into was designed for older stock and wasn’t fit for purpose for calves. Every winter, I was seeing roughly two new cases of pneumonia each week, which was expensive to treat and was having an ongoing impact on growth rates,” he said.

After a particularly severe winter in 2019-2020, he decided to install a VentTube Fresh system (from Galebreaker) to improve the environment of his calf shed. It was designed specifically with his set-up in mind, based on its length, height and number of calves typically within the airspace.

The system brings fresh air in from outside and delivers it at calf height. Air is also able to pass back out of the building and a smoke bomb test carried out by Jonathan’s vet after the addition on the new ventilation system showed that the air cleared quickly as it was not static or recirculating within the shed.

“I’d say it was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. It transformed the feel of the shed as there’s no longer any stale air or the smell of ammonia lingering. The calves are eating more and achieving good growth rates without getting the setback which comes with pneumonia,” he pointed out.

In terms of numbers, Jonathan has had more than 180 calves go through the shed since installing the VentTube Fresh system in October, 2020. Only five have had pneumonia.

Additional pneumonia prevention strategies?

Optimising ventilation is a very effective way of preventing pneumonia in calves. There are also other strategies which can help farmers go a step further to prevent disease and give calves the best start possible.

● Colostrum management – to promote effective immunity;

● Separate calves into age groups – to reduce disease spread from older to younger calves;

● Introduce isolation pens – isolate any calves with pneumonia into a different airspace to prevent spread to healthy calves;

● Minimise stress at weaning – combining other procedures like dehorning with weaning can cause stress, which makes calves vulnerable to infections;

● Vaccination – to protect against specific bacteria or viruses causing disease that can suppress the immune system.

There are a number of sources of information and advice available to help prevent pneumonia in calves by optimising ventilation and your vet will be a good person to help assess air flow and quality.