Bovine Respiratory Disease, or BRD, is a headache for cattle farmers around the world, especially those operating on slim margins.

According to shock statistics by, a staggering 70% of cattle have lung damage at slaughter.

When you break that down again, 30% of all cattle slaughtered have a history of clinical disease while 40% have undiagnosed lung damage.

Lung Disease in Cows at slaughter by calfmatters

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Calves are prone to catching pneumonia, a major fallout of BRD. If a suckler calf gets pneumonia, over time it can reduce average daily live weight gains by up to 0.2 kg/day.

Some estimate that the lost lifetime growth potential from pneumonia-induced lung damage is as high as 74kg-a-year.

Not only are you losing money at the mart, but added production costs make things look even worse.

High vet fees, medicine costs, poorer growth and a lower grade carcass would burn a hole in the deepest pockets.

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According to Farmers Weekly figures, calf pneumonia costs the UK dairy market £80million (€90million) per year.

They claim that a heifer’s first lactation will be 4% smaller, and their second will be 8% smaller if she has ever suffered from pneumonia.

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Each infected animal can cost the farmer between £43 – £84(€49 – €95) according to their figures.

If you presume that an Irish dairy farm has 60 cattle, that leaves them €2940 out of pocket at the very least.

According to, daily liveweight gains could half after an episode of respiratory disease.

Bovine Respiratory Diseases like pneumonia are the most common cause of death and poor performance in dairy cattle under one year of age.

Non-fatal production losses cost the EU cattle industry €576m a year according to a recent study.

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How to spot it

There are some telltale signs of calf pneumonia. Here are a few things you should look out for:

  • Temperature greater than 39.5C
  • Increased breathing rate and effort
  • Coughing
  • Nasal discharge

What you can do to prevent it

Provide well-ventilated facilities.

Good air circulation and ventilation in your shed reduces the risk of calves developing respiratory infections or pneumonia.

Badly ventilated sheds retain too much moisture in the air and let it gather into droplets, and then puddles. These are the perfect breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

Bacteria and viruses are killed 10 times quicker by 100% fresh air than by 50% fresh air.

Lack of fresh air increases the survival time of airborne bacteria and viruses, increases the concentration of toxic and noxious gases, and can reduce oxygen concentrations.

Another way to reduce the risk of pneumonia is letting weanlings or autumn-born calves to venture outdoors for a period.

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Keep calves dry and well-bedded.

Having enough straw for your calving pen is crucial during calving in cold weather.

Calves are not born with a winter hair coat so they need that extra layer to help keep them strong and healthy.

If the weather is exceedingly cold, you should dry off the calf rather than leaving them to ‘air dry’.

The reason for this is that hair coat insulates calves by standing on and and trapping a layer of air around the animal. If it is dry and matted this cannot be the case.

Additionally, calves need to bed down in a clean place, so refresh and add to it regularly.

Dirty bedding could lead to the calf ingesting manure and contaminated material, which in turn could lead to them getting sick.

Calves spend 80% of their time lying down.

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Feed enough milk.

This is particularly a problem in cold weather, when a calf demands more energy to keep warm. If they receive the normal amount of nutrients in their milk, there is little left for growth.

A good rule of thumb at that point is for each one degree drop, the calf should get 2% more feed in the form of extra milk or increased milk powder concentration.

Extreme heat can cause similar issues.

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Avoid nose-to-nose contact.

Infectious saliva and moisture from the respiratory tract can cause pneumonia to spread from calf to calf. If they are housed together, or in nearby houses there’s a chance of them touching noses and spreading their infection.

Keep age groups separated.

Older calves with more fully developed immune systems should be kept separate to younger calves, especially if they are stressed by calving, sickness or weaning.

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Vaccinate the cow/heifer

Cows who get full flu vaccination regime can provide some pneumonia protection for their offspring. This protection is transferred to the calf via colostrum feeding.

Avoid buying calves.

Animals that enter the farm can carry bugs that could infect the rest of the native herd. It is recommended that you house the new cow separately for at least a week.

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Prevent aspiration pneumonia.

This type of pneumonia is man made, from feeding the calf the wrong way.

It can also be brought about by an abnormally large hole in the nipple that lets out too much milk.

Calves cannot swallow all of the fluid fast enough and it goes down their windpipe, and into their lungs instead.

The calf can’t expel that fluid from their lungs and they get sick.

Minimize weaning stress.

Healthy calves can succumb to pneumonia when they’re weaned at about eight weeks of age.

New surroundings, penmates (pen pals?) and ration changes make it an opportunistic time for pneumonia bugs to take over.

Don’t ear-tag, dehorn, tattoo or castrate at weaning time. Take care of those tasks while the calves are still on milk and in individual housing and wait until they recover to wean.

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Give an immunity boost.

You can give your newborn calf the boost they need with a vaccine before they’re moved into group housing.