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January 2012

Clean Air for Calves

As the chill of winter sets in for a few months in Wisconsin, dairy farmers are working hard to keep their calves and farm workers warm. While hutches (individual outdoor houses) protect newborn calves from the weather, disease and older cattle, farm workers must face the wind, ice and blowing snow to feed and care for them. As a result, many dairy farms use nursery barns to give their employees a better environment to work in. Keeping the air clean and fresh in such a barn, however, can be a challenge.

Air quality in calf barns can be difficult to maintain because they do not ventilate as easily as adult cow barns. There are three basic methods for ventilating any space or room: natural, negative and positive pressure ventilation. Natural ventilation designs often do not work well for calf barns because the curtain sidewalls must be kept fairly closed to keep out the snow and blowing wind, and because small calves do not produce enough body heat to cause stale air to rise out the open ridge of the roof. Negative pressure ventilation systems can work well in warm summer months, mechanically drawing air out of the barn from specifically designed inlet spaces at the opposite end and along the sides of the barn. When the weather turns cold, however, the inlets need to be so small to avoid chilling the calves that the precision required is impractical.

Both natural and negative pressure systems are also faced with the challenge of getting fresh air into the space in which the calves actually live. To prevent spread of disease between newborn calves, it is important to have a solid divider wall between them, just like human babies are carefully kept separate from other babies and adults in a hospital nursery. The solution in calf barns is to provide a supplemental positive pressure ventilation system that distributes fresh air into the calf barn down to the level of the calves, in between the pen dividers. These systems must be carefully designed so as to not chill the young calves with a draft yet get enough fresh air into the pens. Veterinarians Ken Nordlund, Becky Brotzman and Arturo Gomez at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine work with dairy farmers to design supplemental positive pressure ventilation systems using a fan blowing into a custom made tube. This service is provided by The Dairyland Initiative, a program developed to promote “welfare-friendly” guidelines for dairy cattle housing, resulting in healthier and more productive calves, heifers and cows.

Why would a group of veterinarians get involved with ventilation and barn design? “Many health problems dairy farms face start with the areas in which the calves, heifers and cows live,” says Dr. Becky Brotzman. “Our group has done research that associates lower incidence of calf respiratory disease in naturally ventilated barns during winter when there are as few as possible solid sides to the pens (only between calves), low airborne bacterial counts within calf pens, and deep bedding for the calves to nest in and insulate themselves from the cold. Supplemental positive pressure ventilation tube systems work to clean the air between those solid dividers, decreasing airborne bacteria concentrations.” The Dairyland Initiative is putting on day-long workshops this winter to train veterinarians and consultants how to successfully design these tube systems to help their dairy farmers raise healthy calves. Visit to learn more about the Initiative (no log in ID is needed to preview the site).

While individual calf hutches continue to be the best environment for newborn calves, properly designed and ventilated indoor "nursery" barns can provide a clean, dry and comfortable setting for both workers and calves. The welfare-friendly housing recommendations of The Dairyland Initiative are advocated by many WVMA veterinarians, and is a program of the Food Animal Production Medicine section at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison. 


The Risks of Sharing Your Bed with Pets

In the United States, most households have a pet and more than half of these pets are allowed to sleep in their owner’s bed! But are there risks to sleeping with your pet?

According to Dr. Robert Forbes of Central Animal Hospital, Onalaska, “pets have gone from the barn to bed over the past generation.” While this strengthens the human-animal bond, there can be an increase in the risk of zoonotic disease. A zoonotic disease is any infectious disease which can be transmitted from animals to humans.

Dr. Forbes says numerous diseases can be spread from pets to people while in close proximity. These include parasites such as roundworms and hookworms and diseases such as toxoplasmosis (a disease caused by toxoplasma – a parasite transmitted through contaminated soil and litter boxes) and giardiasis (an infection of the small intestine caused by a microscopic organism) can also be transmitted.

The most common zoonosis seen by Dr. Forbes are fleas and diseases carried by ticks. Ticks can carry Lyme disease and Anaplasmosis – both which are transmittable bacterial infections.

Pets carry many of these parasites in their stool and on their skin. While pets may not show any symptoms, intestinal parasites can cause subclinical illness to the pet. If your pet is carrying fleas or ticks, he or she may appear itchy. If you think your pet may be carrying any of these diseases, it is important to contact your veterinarian.

According to Dr. Forbes, the risk of disease transmission is present throughout the year, and changing seasons play a role.

“Many pets are exposed to more parasitic diseases during the warmer months as they enjoy more time outdoors. Winter may bring reduced exposure, however more people enjoy the warmth of their pet in bed on a cold night and therefore transmission risk may actually increase.”

Still can’t resist those big brown eyes at the edge of your bed?

“There are numerous steps a pet owner can take to reduce the chances of disease transmission from your pet,” explains Dr. Forbes.

A regular visit to your veterinarian for a routine exam is the best first step to take. Dr. Forbes points out parasites can be easily found during your pet’s exam. He also notes it is important to have your pet’s stool sample checked for intestinal parasites and provide routine deworming. If a problem is detected by your veterinarian, the risk of zoonosis can be reduced.

Overall, Dr. Forbes agrees zoonotic risks can be minimal if your pet has routine veterinary exams – allowing you more cuddle time with your pet!

To discuss preventative measures for your pet, contact your local WVMA veterinarian. Find one online at!

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