According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Dairy 2007 study, respiratory disease is the second-leading cause of death in preweaned heifer calves. Scours is first. And, even with advances in technology and pharmaceutical tools, respiratory disease incidence has increased by 34% in the past 20 years.

Alvaro Garcia, Extension dairy specialist; and Russ Daly, Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University, address the causes, prevention, evaluation and treatment of respiratory disease in a comprehensive management bulletin. Garcia and Daly note disease control is important to long-term herd success, because even if young heifers survive a respiratory incident, they often have impaired lifetime health, and become poor performers as adult cows.

The South Dakota educators share the following advice for effectively controlling calfhood respiratory disease:

Colostrum management

  • Follow industry guidelines for quality, quantity, quickness and cleanliness of colostrum delivery
  • Feed three to four quarts of high-quality colostrum within one hour of birth and three additional quarts within 12 hours
  • Monitor blood IgG levels or blood serum total proteins in calves by group to evaluate colostrum program performance
  • Consider pasteurizing colostrum to reduce microbial load

Environmental management

  • Provide at least 32 square feet of pen space per calf
  • Provide clean, dry, deep bedding
  • Use cold-temperature housing
  • Provide adequate ventilation while reducing drafts
  • House calves separately from adult cows
  • Do not house preweaned calves with animals more than two months older
  • Adjust nutrition levels to accommodate for cold weather

Microbial management

  • Remove newborn calves from dams as soon as possible (24 hours or less)
  • Consult with herd veterinarian regarding vaccine protocols for young calves.

Disease detection and treatment

  • Evaluate calves using a scoring system based on rectal temperature, nasal discharge, eye and ear appearance and presence of cough. Each criteria receives a score of 1-4. The presence of two or more clinical signs, and a total score of 5 or more, indicates sick calves in need of treatment (McGuirk 2005).
  • Consult with herd veterinarian to develop treatment protocols with antibiotic and possibly anti-inflammatory therapy.

Click here to read the full document by Garcia and Daly, including a helpful visual illustration of the scoring system with excellent photos.