How to reduce stress and disease in youngstock

Controlling disease such as scour and pneumonia in young calves is not easy, but reducing metabolic stress can have a significant impact. Esme Moffett, vet at Synergy Farm Health in Dorset, explains. 

Metabolic stress impacts on calves’ basic metabolic demands such as staying warm and fighting infection. The most common form of stress for artificially reared calves is nutritional stress.

This is clear when we compare bucket-reared calves who get fed about 4-8 litres a day, to suckler calves who can consume up to 10-14 litres a day over lots of small feeds.

See also: Rethinking cattle performance: How to improve old calf sheds on a budget

Other stressors include:

  • cold stress
  • dehorning
  • castration
  • weaning or mixing with other calves.

Stressful events coinciding may cause calves to eat less or create a greater immune challenge.

One farm Ms Moffett works with buys in calves in the autumn and rears them to stores or fat. Having had issues in the past with pneumonia, the farm decided to implement a vaccination plan.

On, or just after arrival all calves received a dose of Rispoval RS+PI3 Intranasal vaccine. They grew well through the milk phase and were big, strong calves when they were weaned.

Esme Moffat with calves

Esme Moffatt, Synergy Farm Health

After weaning they were moved to a different shed and mixed into one big group of 20. This is when problems started to arise.

Despite being Belgium Blue-cross calves that were well grown and well fed, many started getting pneumonia.

It was hard to pinpoint exactly what was going wrong. Although building design was not perfect, it wasn’t bad.

They were not sharing their airspace with any older stock and there was plenty of air movement – perhaps too much.

For future groups of calves, a plan was implemented.This included:

1 Buying calves direct from farm and ideally from only one or two farms.

2 Vaccinating all calves on or just after arrival with Rispoval RS+PI3 Intranasal, providing they were healthy.

Otherwise they are less likely to have the desired effect. Any signs of clinical disease should warrant discussion with a vet before vaccination. The vet will help decide the costs/benefits of vaccination in these cases.

Signs that farmers should be looking for on arrival are any evidence of scour, coughing, discharge from the eyes or nose, obvious breathing difficulties and lack of appetite.

If any of these signs are seen they should discuss further examination and treatment with their vet. This would normally involve taking the temperature along with looking for other signs in more detail.

3 Housing calves in a small building away from other stock (this is farm specific), unless there is a lack of buildings.

4 Keeping calves well bedded on dry, deep straw.

5 Feeding six litres of milk a calf a day, with milk powder mixed at 150g/litres of water.

6 Spreading out stressful events as much as possible, for example, dehorning, castrating and weaning (see timeline below).

7 Offering starter pellets little and often and ensure they are eating 1.5-2kg at weaning.

8 Maintaining high levels of hygiene with feeding equipment and housing.

9 Controlling air speed into the shed using space boarding and we put large straw bales across the front of the bedded area to reduce draughts.

Age of calves



Calves all received the intranasal vaccination on arrival

A few weeks later


A few weeks after this


8 weeks old (as long as they were eating enough)


10-12 weeks old

Given a Rispoval 4 injection to cover the post-weaning phase when the intranasal vaccine cover would be starting to wane

One week later

Pre-movement tested

Three weeks later

Given their second Rispoval 4 vaccination

Two weeks later

Moved to a building away from the main farm


As a group, these calves have not looked back. Only two have required treatment for pneumonia.

This is a great demonstration of how vaccine can be successfully used within a pneumonia control programme, but emphasises how controlling all the other areas of calf management leads to greater success.

No vaccine is 100% effective and we need to give them the best chance of working by managing external factors.

If you have ticked all the boxes, but are still getting high levels of disease, then a review of building design may be needed and perhaps the installation of a fan and tube ventilation system.

Discussing the issues with your vet is the best place to start.