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Spring is welcome, but it brings its own issues for calves

Pen Checker Diary: Nicer weather comes with a whole parcel of animal health risks

calf eating grass

Those of us in the agricultural field find ourselves continually affected by our Canadian weather. A constant of this weather is that it is continually changing, and when the bitter cold temperatures of winter begin to ease and the spring sun appears in its brilliance, Old Sonny and I tend to feel pretty good about ourselves and feedlot life in general.

The majority of cattle are almost finished and are generally in good health. At times Old Sonny and I can become lulled into a false sense of security by the warm sun, the content livestock and the birds chirping in the budding trees as we move from pen to pen. It is very possible that we catch ourselves on autopilot.

And why not? Everything should be good, right? We have survived the earlier fall season with all the weaned calf placements along with the shipping fever and bronchopneumonia that came with them.

Those days we were constantly on edge, leaning forward in the saddle, eyes straining to recognize all the sick calves as early as possible. After that it was dealing with all the pinkeye and foot rot that swept through some of the pens. Pulling those ornery, half-blind creatures was no picnic as they seemed intent on constantly putting up a fight. Then the extreme cold and wind of the Christmas and New Year seasons set in and we, along with the majority of the cattle, managed to survive that as well. Now that the spring sun has put in an appearance and is burning the back of our necks, we deserve a break. We deserve to cruise the pens on autopilot. Don’t we?

Beware! Don’t let your guard down as this is the season of interstitial pneumonia. It can hit the feedlot as the almost silent killer it is. Interstitial pneumonias are unforgiving. Sonny and I need to wake up and watch the hundred-plus days-on-feed cattle and especially the heifers as they are more affected than the steers. When dealing with the bronchopneumonia types you will definitely see more quantity, but you generally have a little more time for treatment. Interstitial pneumonia is different. Ride the feed bunks regularly checking for signs of mouldy feed. When the winter bedding season has come to an end as the warmth of spring sets in, the topical straw begins to break down and produce airborne dust. The combination of this and mouldy feed are known culprits when it comes to interstitial pneumonias.

The basic signs for cattle with this type of pneumonia are quick uneven breathing often accompanied by extended necks and lowered heads. Usually you will notice them as they are slightly gaunt and stand apart from the group. In the worst cases, you will see open mouths with froth dripping to the ground. If this foam is noticed anywhere, search the pen for the culprit.

As pen checkers we need to recognize the changing seasons and the different issues they bring. Yes, we can feel good about the previous months coming to an end and the great job we did as pen checkers in controlling mortality rates, but we always need to stay on our toes. Interstitial pneumonia is unforgiving. Don’t assume that heifer is panting because it’s a warm day. Don’t ignore it. And keep in mind that since this pneumonia hits so quickly and with such power, not only is time limited, there is also limited respiratory energy with these animals. They cannot be overly stressed while pulling for treatment, as they can collapse and die almost instantly. Be quietly efficient and do your best not to run them. Give the barn staff a fighting chance. Early treatment can be effective but waiting too long offers only a quick slaughter option, without the use of withdrawal drugs.

But don’t worry as summer will soon arrive and lead into fall bringing with it some new and old livestock problems and issues to be on guard for. As the spring sun greets us as pen checkers, we need to be reminded to flip the auto pilot switch to “off” on ourselves and our respective versions of Old Sonny, clean our glasses, lean forward in our saddles and be on guard for the killer that is interstitial pneumonia.

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