How much is pneumonia costing your beef enterprise?

Pneumonia in beef calves not only has an immediate cost in terms of medication, but it can also result in on-going losses and a reduced profit when it comes to slaughter.

The disease can lead to ill-thrive; a reduction in average daily gain (ADG); a reduction in carcass quality; and even death.

Speaking on behalf of Animal Health Ireland (AHI), at a recent Teagasc, Kepak and AHI beef event, Catherine Carty – a European specialist in bovine health management – outlined that pneumonia is not to be “sniffed” at.

She said: “An animal with chronic pneumonia is not going to thrive as well as it should. They will also have a reduced liveweight gain, reduced carcass quality and, therefore, a reduced profit come slaughter.

“Repeat infections of pneumonia have a really bad effect on the lungs. However, if you tackle the problem quickly, the case never seems to be too bad. Obviously there is some damage, but repeat cases are a major problem,” she explained.

In 2017, just under 4% of all young bulls’ lungs were condemned in beef processing plants as a result of pneumonia.

Catherine explained that if an animal has puss at its nose – especially if it is located on both nostrils – then this animal has a severe case of pneumonia.

She continued: “In terms of the live animal, we have no way of fully knowing how badly the animal is infected. We can’t ultrasound lungs on a mass scale.

“But if you can deal with it and they get over it, you have a better chance if the animal gets infected again. The chronic cases tend to be very difficult to reverse,” she said.

Research

Research from the UK was carried out to show the effects of pneumonia – at different rates of infection – on an animal’s performance. From this, the cost to the farmer was calculated.

The trail involved 645 beef calves. Lungs were examined for the presence and severity of damage from respiratory disease. The animals were aimed to be finished at 16 months, weighing 560kg (liveweight).

Animals with no evidence of respiratory disease were slaughtered aged 16 months, weighing 560kg (liveweight).

Calves that were moderately affected by pneumonia at the age of five-to-six months had a daily liveweight gain (DLWG) of 72g less than those with healthy lungs.

If we look at this over a 10-month period, that’s a 22kg reduction in DLWG. Therefore, the animals were slaughtered aged 16 months and 22 days, weighing 560kg liveweight (assuming that the DWLG was 1kg/day after 16 months).

Calves that were chronically infected with a respiratory disease aged five-to-six months had a DLWG of 202g less than those with healthy lungs.

That’s a 61kg reduction in DLWG over the 10-month period. These animals were slaughtered at 18 months, weighing 560kg (again assuming the DLWG was 1kg/day after 16 months).

In addition, carcasses with severe lung damage also tended to grade lower. This led not only to a potentially lighter carcass but also a lower price price per kilogram (deadweight).

The costs

An immediate cost of pneumonia of €79 was factored into the equation. This was based on costing data in suckler calves, minus the cost of mortality. The study also incurs a feed cost of €2.60/kg of liveweight gain.

Firstly, in the case where the animal died (assuming the calf weighed 225kg at six months and at a market price of €2.30/kg), the cost to the farmer stands at €518/head.

The cost of a case of moderate pneumonia stands at €57 (it took 22 days longer to finish the animal). Therefore, the total cost to the farmer stands at €136/head (€79 + €57).

The cost of a case of chronic pneumonia amounts to €157 (it took an extra two months to finish these animals). However, taking the cost of down grading into the equation (€40), the total cost to the farmer stands at €276/head (€79 + €157 + €40).

Total cost of respiratory disease:
  • Total cost (dead animal aged six months): €518 (225kg at €2.30/kg);
  • Total cost for a case of moderate pneumonia: €79 + €57 = €136/head;
  • Total cost for a case of severe pneumonia: €79 + €157 + €40 = €276/head.

Treatment

Pneumonia can be cured easily if it is treated in time. However, antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections. Furthermore, where bacteria infections are identified, antibiotics can be used to resolve the problem.

Catherine said: “The key to effective control is getting in with a treatment really early. The reason why most pneumonia treatments fail is generally because they are started a day or two too late.

“Its too late when the animal is not coming up to feed. You need to spot them the day before – when they are blowing and acting a little bit off. However, this can be easier said than done,” she said.

In addition, as is the case with most diseases, prevention is better than cure. Good-management practises are key in the prevention of pneumonia. A vaccination programme is also available.