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The Moo News

Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care                                                December 2002

  Hi Folks,

            This month I’ve gotten a bunch of calls regarding coughing calves. Since we are going into the winter months, the information here should be helpful through early April. In general, I’ll receive a call when a calf is sick enough that a farmer observes a change in normal behavior. Symptoms usually include a cough, nasal discharge, not coming up to eat, and perhaps a rough coat. When checking the calf in question, I usually will hear rough lung sounds of varying degree, find a fever which is typically 103.2-104.8, observe an increased respiratory rate and an obvious cough. But when I’m in the pen catching the sick calf, others will begin coughing when rustled up. Upon examining them, they will usually have milder symptoms than the sickest calf, but be on the path to becoming as sick. This condition of calves is generally referred to as Enzootic Calf Pneumonia. The sickest calf is suffering from a bacterial pneumonia (usually due to Pasteurella hemolytica or Pasteurella multocida). Sometimes it may be caused by Mycoplasma. Often, the bacterial infection is secondary to a primary viral infection. The initiating virus “punches holes” along the respiratory tract and opportunistic bacteria that are always present and normally don’t create problems can give rise to a fatal secondary bacterial pneumonia (if left untreated for too long). In general, animals can withstand viral challenges if their immune system is functioning well, if they are not stressed, if their environment is optimal and they can benefit from vaccinating for the most lethal viruses. If, however, young weaned animals are carrying a heavy parasite load, their immature immune systems are taxed and they can succumb to the initiating viral challenge. For calves not suffering from parasitism, damp bedding combined with a chilly, raw air can also weaken them to become sick. The problem is compounded when parasitized calves are kept in damp, chilly areas. I usually see outbreaks of Enzootic Calf Pneumonia in pens of calves kept near the milking cows. This proximity to the older cows heightens the possibility of the calves picking up the virus or bacteria from the cows, which may be carriers of the germs. Stress of poor nutrition, damp bedding, chilly air and parasitism make for sick calves, or, at least, calves that aren’t thriving.

            So what happens to the calf that the farmer first observed sick? Chances are that the calf will already have irreversible lung consolidation. This means that air entering the lungs through the bronchi (windpipe) never gets effectively absorbed because the areas of diseased lung tissue are no longer functional. By listening with the stethoscope, I can alert the farmer how much permanently damaged tissue there is. These calves, if they survive, usually show respiratory problems in a couple years when heavy in calf in the hot summer days. Aggressive antibiotic and anti-inflammatory therapy is their only hope—but the permanently damaged tissue will still be useless later on. Animals simply don’t function well with less than 100% lung capacity.

            For calves not yet suffering from consolidated lungs, the antibiotics of choice are Micotil, Naxcel or Nuflor. I don’t find that oxytetracycline or tetracycline works well on Enzootic Calf Pneumonia. Perhaps that is due to calves which are continuously fed a medicated feed and the germs slowly become resistant to therapeutic doses of the same family of medicines.

            Calves which are bright and alert, still eating OK and have a dry, hacking cough (but which will become worse if neglected) may remain stable if they are given liberal amounts of dry bedding and access to fresh, clean air. (This is why calves in hutches usually don’t get pneumonia). This group of calves are the best candidates to try natural, non-antibiotic approaches. During the past couple weeks, I’ve had an opportunity to use my “herbal antibiotic formula” for respiratory calves on 3 different farms and on one fresh cow with diagnosed pneumonia. The formula, which consists of equal parts garlic, goldenseal and purple coneflower, is given at the rate of 5-10cc for calves 150-400 lbs; 20cc for an adult cow, 3 times daily in the mouth for 4-5 days. All three farmers noticed improvement and were pleasantly surprised at the results while not using antibiotics. It must be stressed that this natural “antibiotic formula” is only for moderately effected calves—not severely effected ones. Although it wasn’t done on these 3 farms, it would help to also give 5-10cc each of vitamin C and vitamin B-complex once daily for 4-5 days. Also a dose of vitamin E and selenium.

            Prevention of pneumonia is the best and that can be accomplished by hutches, dry bedding, fresh air, good nutrition and possibly vaccinating with the IBR/PI3 intra-nasal vaccine at one and five weeks of life (but not in between, due to colostral interference) if the calves are usually between 2-3 months old when pneumonia hits. If it hits when they are between 4-8 months old, vaccinating with a 9-way modified live vaccine may be effective. In any event, the natural “antibiotic formula” seems to be an exciting alternative in treating moderately ill calves.

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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