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GPS the Pneumonia Problems in Your Dairy Calf Enterprise

01 June 2009

Some farmers use a tractor-mounted Global Positioning System (GPS) – a constellation of earth-orbiting satellites – to help determine how much fertilizer and herbicide to apply in a specific location in a field when combined with other information such as soil samples, moisture content, and weed density in a computer spreadsheet, says Neil Broadwater Extension Educator-Dairy.

It is also used to measure acreages and field slope, and identify field boundaries. One Oregon State University research study has been using GPS collars on animals to collect information on each animal's location, with the date and time, every 30 seconds. If you have been in a vehicle with a GPS system and you get off course, an automated voice announces the system is “recalibrating” to get you back on track. GPS is helping producers to make good management decisions by developing a plan backed up by good data to help steer them in the right direction, keeping them on course.

A study was conducted in 2007 by the USDA APHIS National Animal Health Monitoring System on “Dairy Cattle Health and Management Practices in the U.S.” (published September 2008). Results showed the percent of unweaned dairy heifers having respiratory disease (pneumonia) on U.S. dairy farms was 12.4 per cent. Only 5.9 per cent of weaned heifers were affected with respiratory disease. However, the percentage of unweaned heifer deaths caused by respiratory problems was 22.5 per cent. For weaned heifers, respiratory disease was the single largest cause of death at 46.5 per cent.

Early identification and treatment of pneumonia are important. Calves that develop chronic pneumonia seldom recover completely. The sickness has a significant impact on the growth and future productivity of the replacement heifer. It is essential that the factors causing this illness be addressed. So maybe it’s time to “GPS” your pneumonia situation. Not by using a satellite (maybe someday!), but by gathering data, analyzing it, and working with your veterinarian. Then putting a plan in place to ‘stay on course’ to reach your destination of minimizing pneumonia incidences. Here are some ways to ‘recalibrate’ to get on the right track:

  • Know the clinical signs of pneumonia – nasal discharge; body temperature of >105.8° F; decreased appetite; watery and/or bloody diarrhea; cough, labored breathing; head tilt; umbilical or joint swelling; weakness; and the inability or reluctance to rise.
  • House calves separately – calves should not have contact with adult cattle or commingle with sick animals. Older and younger calves should not have physical contact during the first 3 to 4 months of life. Group post-weaned calves by age and size with 3 to 5 animals per group. If an outbreak of pneumonia develops, newly-born calves should be reared in a separate facility.
  • Calf comfort – calves should not be housed in facilities that fluctuate in temperature, are under-bedded, warm, damp, humid or poorly ventilated (exposed to noxious gases, drafts, dusts and molds in the air). This environment is high in viruses and bacteria, which put calves at significant risk for developing pneumonia. Use switches, thermostats and timers so the environment is always being controlled. High humidity makes calves damp and sick. Optimal relative humidity is around 65-75 per cent for calf housing.
  • When do calves get pneumonia? – It starts with the dam. Good care, nutrition and housing from the pre- to post-calving period are important to help control pneumonia in new born calves. In general, problems that occur within 5 days of birth usually have their source from the dam or the calving environment. Whereas after 7 days of age, problems develop from a source in the calf’s environment. Remember, pneumonia isn’t just a post-weaning problem. Its origin and opportunities to prevent it can begin even prior to weaning and as early as 2 weeks of age.
  • Early identification of sick calves– Early morning rectal temperature that exceeds 103° F for two successive mornings or is accompanied by slow, reduced or no milk intake at feeding can be an indicator of an on-coming problem. Take the temperature at the same time everyday for the first week of life or the period considered as the most common for pneumonia in your operation. As an aid in early detection of pneumonia, consider using a “Calf Respiratory Scoring Chart”. (See chart included with article.) This chart, including photos, can be found at:, or contact your local extension office to print the chart for you.

In conclusion, using a “GPS” approach by gathering information on management practices and protocols, and developing and implementing a plan can help the calf raiser stay on course to prevent pneumonia (and even other diseases) and attain target goals for growth and frame size in the heifer enterprise.

Calf Respiratory Scoring Chart
Farm Name: ____________________________________
Date: _______________
Calf Scores (Total respiratory score: 4 – watch, 5 or more – treat)
Animal ID Age Temp-erature Nasal discharge Cough – spontaneous or induced Eye or ear Total respiratory score
1541 27 d 2 0 1 1 =  4
Calf Health Scoring Criteria
0 1 2 3
Rectal temperature – °F
100-100.9 101-101.9 102-102.9 ≥103
None Induce single cough Induce repeated coughs or occasional spontaneous cough Repeated spontaneous cough
Nasal discharge
Normal serious discharge Small amount of unilateral cloudy discharge Bilateral, cloudy or excessive mucus discharge Copious bilateral mucopurulent discharge
Eye scores
Normal Small amount of ocular discharge Moderate amount of bilateral discharge Heavy ocular discharge
Ear scores
Normal Ear flick or head shake Slight unilateral droop Head tilt or bilateral droop

Developed by Dr. Sheila M. McGuirk – U of WI School of Veterinary Medicine.

May 2009

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