Vets urge: watch for pneumonia in calves
For many ranchers throughout North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and the surrounding area, 2019 has been marked with extreme weather that just won’t quit.
From dangerous, record-breaking cold temperatures in January to winter storm Wesley and the bomb cyclone in March and April to excessive moisture that has continued throughout the spring planting and summer haying seasons, 2019 will be a year to remember.
Throughout all of these out-of-the-norm weather events, producers have dealt with low body condition scores in cows, poor-doing calves, death loss, chronic illnesses and more. And these issues aren’t likely to go away once calves have been weaned and head to the feedlot.
Shauna Kummer, a beef producer from Parkson, S.D., says the first half of 2019 was tough, but things are looking up.
“Surprisingly, this year is the healthiest our calves have been in the last few years,” she said. “We only had to treat a few this spring, and the last couple years, we were having to mass treat our whole herd. As far as sickness goes this year, that is the one good thing that has come out of this year for us. Granted, we hardly have enough forages planted to feed cattle this year, but we keep telling ourselves that it will get better sooner or later!”
While Kummer’s spring-born calves are faring well despite the stressful 2019 they have experienced, others have not been so lucky.
“We have just started seeing an uptick in pneumonia cases in our area,” said Erik Holum, DVM, owner of Sweetgrass Veterinary Services in Dimock, S.D. “Unfortunately, I think the worst is yet to come. There are many calves out there that might have some underlying pneumonia symptoms, and I’m worried the stress of weaning will bring on the onset of pneumonia or other respiratory issues.”
These health issues issues, says Brian Dorcey, DVM, practicing veterinary consultant at Veterinary Medical Center in Worthington, Minn., can trace all the way back to tough weather conditions during the spring calving season.
“This year is going to look a lot like 2018 did,” said Dorcey, who travels extensively throughout the region working with cow-calf and feedlot operations. “The tough weather producers have had to deal with in the last couple of years has resulted in cows with lower body condition scores, who require more energy throughout the winter months. Then when they calve under stress, their colostrum may not be as high of quality, and that impacts the calf for the rest of its life.”
Dorcey anticipates a tough fall as these 2019 spring-born calves enter the feedlot.
“To deal with these more moderate- to high-risk calves, producers will need to slow things and space weaning and bunk breaking down to lower the stress this fall,” said Dorcey. “I recommend getting the calves on a good nutrition plan right away. Be aggressive in treating and detecting sickness right away. If a calf catches your eye and ‘might be’ sick, go ahead and treat him.”
He added, “The general rule of thumb whatever your death loss is, you have an equal amount of chronic sickness in your remaining calf crop, as well. This year, more than ever, basic husbandry practices will be critical — low-stress weaning, having enough bunk space, providing ample bedding, making sure there’s plenty of access to clean water, etc. And when it comes to treating calves that might be sick, I recommend that my clients take a more aggressive approach to pulling and treating rather than a wait and see attitude. We need to get on these smoldering pneumonia early to have the best chance of a positive treatment outcome.”
As fall approaches and the weaning season draws near, Holum said producers may still feel the impact of a tough winter and spring.
“Producers can’t get in the field to plant this year, so they’ll also be unable to haul manure and get it spread,” said Holum. “Some of the lots this year were so tough that producers simply opened the gate and let pairs out to grass without even working them. What that means is pre-conditioning before or at weaning will be even more critical this year to maintain the health of these spring-born calves who have seen nothing but stress their entire lives.”
Dorcey concurs and said many feedlots are running lower numbers simply to give pens some time to recover after the massive flooding and excessive moisture received in much of the midwest.
“We are seeing feedlot owners lower their stocking rates to allow these pens to dry out and recover from the first-half of 2019,” said Dorcey. “I think in 2018, cattle buyers tried to source calves that weren’t in the direct path of the winter blizzards, but this year, buyers will be hard-hard-pressed to source calves that weren’t impacted by the tough weather.”
“I think cattle buyers will be looking to eliminate risk as much as they can when they source calves this year,” added Holum. “When we see stressed, high-risk calves get weaned straight off the cow and sold at a sale barn, then travel 6-10 hours to get to a feedlot, these feeders saw a lot of death loss in 2018. I think buyers will be mindful of this in 2019, and it will pay for cow-calf producers to take the extra steps to pre-condition those calves before sale day to lower the risk of chronic illness moving forward.”
If producers identify summer pneumonia in calves, it will likely present as a lethargic calf with droopy ears, watery eyes, a runny nose, a fever and difficulties breathing.
“It’s critical for producers to work closely with their veterinarians to diagnose and treat these illnesses as soon as possible,” said Dorcey. “Once we know the source and the cause, we can more effectively treat and manage sickness before it becomes a chronic issue in the feedlot.”
“Early symptoms may be hard to detect, but summer pneumonia can accelerate in just a few days,” added Holum. “Responding with appropriate treatment methods is important, and even if you aren’t experiencing cases of pneumonia yet, I think it’s a good thing to be mindful of the stress experienced by spring-born calves this year and do what you can to eliminate any additional stress as we wean and work these calves.”
One bright side of the excessive moisture in 2019, Holum said, is there is plenty of grass out in the pastures.
“Even though we have a lot of available grass for grazing, this is not the year to skip on mineral for your herd,” said Holum. “We need to get those cows back in good shape for the upcoming winter, and unfortunately, as I’ve started ultra-sounding more herds, we are seeing lower conception rates than in years past. This year has been tough on cows and calves, so anything you can do to promote health and wellness in the herd will be beneficial this year. Don’t skip these critical steps.”
Cutline (Photo courtesy of Erik Holum, DVM): “Early symptoms may be hard to detect, but summer pneumonia can accelerate in just a few days,” said Erik Holum, DVM, of Dimock, S.D.
Cutline (Photo courtesy Brian Dorcey, DVM): “This year, buyers will be hard-hard-pressed to source calves that weren’t impacted by the tough weather,” says Brian Dorcey, DVM, of Worthington, Minn.
Cutline (Photo by Amanda Radke): For many ranchers throughout North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and the surrounding area, 2019 has been marked with extreme weather that just won’t quit. F