40 Years of Calf Pneumonia History

When I was in veterinary school back around 1980, calf huts were rapidly gaining popularity. The reason was that dairymen were seeing much better health in their baby calves during the first eight weeks of life. Of particular note was the decrease in the incidence of pneumonia in these hut-raised calves. The slogan often heard back then was “The solution to pollution is dilution”. What farmers had discovered was that if each calf had their own air space they were less likely to develop pneumonia and if they did, the bacteria-laden air that they were shedding was diluted by the open out-side air before it had a chance to infect the calf in the hut next to them.

There were a number of “rules” for these calf huts that added to their success. They needed to be on a flat surface so no drafts could blow in under the bottom of the hut. The surface prefer-ably was designed to provide drainage of moisture and urine. The pen was well-bedded with straw to keep the calf dry. Feed and water were provided at one end of the hut where most of the moisture and trampled bedding occurred, leaving the back of the hut dry and providing the calf with a clean dry place to lay down. It was recommended to clean the huts thoroughly, tipping them upside down to let the sun dry them out and kill any “bugs” on the hut surface before they house the next calf.

In a Hut Rut
What happened? One farmer stated that “I could either keep my huts or keep my wife.” People figured out these outdoor huts were not pleasant to tend to in bad weather. So, in recent years producers began to raise calves in-doors again. The health problems with baby calves predictably increased in the indoor environment. Air quality in these facilities declined as calves shared a common air space and once one calf developed pneumonia, he soon shared it with others. Antibiotic usage increased significantly as folks tried to manage the disease. Unfortunately, calves were often sick enough to experience permanent lung damage even with treatment. This prompted the search for new practices to mitigate the incidence of pneumonia. The idea of going back outside was not one most dairymen wanted to consider, particularly in the northern states where winters are longer and more harsh.

The calf hut remains the gold standard as the best way to raise healthy baby calves the first eight weeks of life. In milder climates this continues to be popular and calf ranches can be found with thousands of calf huts on one ranch. For those living in the colder northern climate, solutions to the pneumonia problem indoors had to be found and unfortunately not everyone has been paying attention to what practices make the problem manageable in calves raised indoors. In my next article we will look at features that provide for better health of calves raised inside calf barn facilities.