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Calf pneumonia is a major threat to beef and dairy producers – but a pioneering ventilated wall could slash incidence of the disease.

The most common post-mortem diagnosis in calves aged one to five months old, pneumonia causes poor growth rates, lung damage and death. It is estimated to cost the industry £80m a year, often spreading rapidly through groups of calves and affecting 50% or more in an outbreak.

Although it is possible to vaccinate against the disease, it can be caused by a number of different factors, which, if present, will render the vaccine less effective. And one of the commonest problems is insufficient ventilation in housing.

Mark Chapple, who rears 120 calves a year at Redwoods Farm, Uplowman, Devon, used to suffer from high rates of pneumonia in his old housing. “We had a rented farm and the buildings weren’t designed with calf rearing in mind,” he says. “Pneumonia was often a problem.”

On moving to Redwoods Farm five years ago, he built a new modern shed, with a covered open ridge and a 120-foot wall clad in a perforated metal wall sheet called Highlight. “We wanted to get plenty of air flow in from the sides – when rearing calves having a nice airy environment is absolutely key.”

Manufactured locally by United Roofing Products, the powder-coated sheeting is 25% voided in the form of tiny holes, which allow plenty of light and air through, but not wind or rain. “It’s on the Eastern end of the shed, and I was worried it would rust or let the snow through, but even the offcuts are rust-free, and it keeps the weather out,” says Mr Chapple. “It provides a lovely airy environment inside – it feels really fresh, and we don’t get anything like the pneumonia we used to.”

Buying in calves at two weeks old, Mr Chapple bucket feeds them, and rears the bulls indoors to finish at 13-15 months old. “I rear the heifers at the other farm, and either keep them as suckler cows or sell them as bulling heifers at 18-24 months old.” As well as the beef unit, he also keeps 600 mule cross ewes, which are housed in the same shed for six weeks before lambing.

“When you have sheep in a shed the stocking density is far greater than with calves, so getting lots of air is just as important. I winter shear some of the sheep, and they are happy even if the weather is cold, because it is not draughty or wet inside. The light that comes in is a bonus, too – it’s definitely cut our electricity bills. And seeing the calves and lambs lying in the sun in the mornings is just lovely.”