The drought that has begun to plague the Midwest has farmers and ranchers thinking about certain things more in-depth than during a year with regular rainfall. For cattle producers, dust pneumonia is on that list.

“We have instances where in dry conditions, when there is a lot of dust in the environment, it’s been a commonly encountered situation where soon after dusty conditions set in that we have animals breathing hard and running fevers from pneumonia,” said Russ Daly, South Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and professor. “I am sure dust pneumonia will be more of an issue this year, given the region’s drought conditions.”

The dust itself is not to blame for the animal getting dust pneumonia, but rather it acts as the final straw. An abundance of livestock already have respiratory germs in their nasal passages. However, it takes an outside force, such as dirt or dust, to reach the tipping point.

“But something has to happen, bad weather or a long truck ride, for example, that kind of tips the balance to the germs. Well, dust does that, too, by clogging up the natural defenses of the respiratory system,” Daly said.

Jeff Breker owns and operates a cow-calf operation in Havana, N.D., finishing out about 1,100 head a year.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“I noticed last week that my cattle were stirring in the pen, and I had a really dust storm going at that time; fortunately, it rained a small amount that evening,” Breker said.

Breker’s ranch has been lucky enough to receive precipitation, he says, adding that his area has good moisture conditions. However, he still takes precautions when it comes to dust pneumonia in his herd.

“Generally we have our pens pretty well cleaned up in the fall before we get in new calves, so that eliminates part of the problem. Also, bedding abundantly is a good way to help prevent some of that dust getting up and stirring in the cattle herd,” Breker said. “I take that into real concern when I am working my calves in the fall that are just coming off their moms; I keep it watered down so there is no dust in there.”

Daly agrees that working cattle in drier conditions should be avoided if possible. In terms of prevention, keeping things watered down and clean will also help producers avoid dust pneumonia in their herd.

Younger calves are most susceptible to this respiratory issue. Producers should be on the lookout for general slowness, droopy ears and calves laying down when the rest of the group is up and walking away. These are signs that the animal may have contracted dust pneumonia.

“It's more subtle than you would expect. It's going to be the calves breathing hard and coughing, but that is after it has become advanced. Those calves would be running fevers, too, and be very slow,” Daly said.

If suspected, ranchers are advised to contact their veterinarian to figure out a treatment plan that will best suit their herd and their needs.