What does summer pneumonia look like in calves, and what to do about it?

What does summer pneumonia look like in calves, and what to do about it?

Calf on range
Photo credit Troy Walz.

Though the stress of calving season is behind us, cattle producers have to stay vigilant, because things like nursing calf pneumonia and pinkeye can take a lot of the fun out of baseball games and county fairs. Let’s take a quick look at summer/nursing-calf pneumonia.

Beef producers normally spot this condition when they notice a listless calf with droopy ears and a high body temperature (fever). The calf may or may not cough or have visible difficulty breathing. Speak with your veterinarian if you have questions regarding how to best approach vaccinating calves as well as what you’ll want to use to treat summer pneumonia if you identify it in your calves. Treatment is usually effective with this condition when administered early in the course of the disease.

Cattle across Nebraska endured prolonged weather stress this past winter, and many cows appear to be thinner than usual, even in areas not affected by the historic and devastating winter weather. Due to the winter stress on cows we suspect a large percentage of calves received lower quality colostrum than usual this year, which may make them more likely to get sick, including with summer pneumonia. We’ve heard about lots of struggles with calf health across the state this spring, which means it will be especially important to keep very close tabs on calf health this summer, and if treatment is necessary, to intervene earlier rather than later. 

If the calf dies, a veterinarian can generally diagnose this condition with a high level of certainty during a post-mortem exam. Having these calves posted by a veterinarian can also rule out other possibilities and allow the vet to recommend the ideal course of action for future cases. During the summer months it is very important to get any dead calf that will be presented for a post-mortem exam to the veterinarian as soon as possible, because the carcass will decompose rapidly in hot conditions, which may make it impossible for a vet to accurately diagnose.   

A recent survey of veterinarians led by AR Woolums suggested that across the Plains states about one in five herds will have cases of summer pneumonia in a given year. In a related survey of beef producers by the same research group, the number of cases of summer pneumonia appeared to correlate with herds that had fought scours in the calves, had a calving season that lasted three months or longer, or that brought in orphan calves from other farms. 

Dr. Richard Randle wrote a BeefWatch article, Summer Pneumonia in Beef Calves, in July of 2015. In it, he explained a case-control study in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota beef herds to better identify risk factors for nursing calf pneumonia. The project was completed, and identified several risk factors for the condition, including increasing herd size, especially herds with 500 cows or more, intensive grazing, and estrus (heat) synchronization. It is thought that these practices increase the number of “effective contacts” between calves, meaning they have more chances to effectively spread bacteria and viruses to one another. These practices may carry significant benefits for the beef operation, but care must be taken to manage the associated risks. 

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