A smoky haze filled the sky around our Hoard’s Dairyman Farm several days this week, and poor air quality alerts have become somewhat the norm this summer. Many farms in the Midwest and other regions of the country have been experiencing this same situation as wildfires continue to burn in Canada.

Reduced air quality can create challenges for people and animals. We asked veterinarian Keith Poulsen, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine, for his perspective on the potential health risks.

“I suspect that some producers will see health related problems,” said Poulsen. “In people, individuals that are at higher risk for adverse health consequences are those with predisposing cardiopulmonary problems like heart disease, asthma, COPD, or pneumonia.”

Public health officials advise that at-risk individuals stay indoors to minimize exposure to unhealthy atmospheric air. Pouslen said it is also recommended that people do not exercise or have athletic competitions when air quality advisories are in place to reduce exposure to particulates in the air that can cause airway inflammation.

He noted that the risks for companion animals are the same as they are for humans, and the same recommendations apply to minimize adverse health events. While it is easier to keep cats and dogs indoors, most livestock are not housed in climate-controlled facilities. So, how does this smoke affect these animals?

“The interesting part about cattle is that they are not athletes and need less airway capacity to make milk or for musculoskeletal growth,” Poulsen explained. “They also have shorter productive lifespans and are unlikely to develop chronic respiratory hypersensitivity disorders like asthma or COPD.”

He pointed out that at-risk cattle would be those that dealt with respiratory diseases like bovine respiratory disease complex or enzootic calf pneumonia. “These animals may have decreased treatment success or other complications like increased respiratory distress because they already have significantly impaired breathing ability,” Poulsen shared.

In healthy animals, Poulsen said it is possible to see reduced dry matter intake and associated declines in daily gain or milk production with prolonged exposure to air pollution and low or unhealthy air quality. (Sources: Beaupied et al. (2022) Environmental Research. Vol 207) and Cox et al (2016) Epidemiology. Vol 27).

“Less is known about the effects of transient poor air quality, like what we are seeing with the smoke from Canadian Wildfires,” Poulsen said, noting that these air quality problems will likely persist until snow arrives this fall to extinguish them completely. If that is the case, it is possible that the poor air quality and its health consequences for people and animals will not be just transient, he noted.

“The best that we can do for our cattle herds and calf rearing systems is to control and improve what we can,” was Poulsen’s advice to animal caretakers. He recommended early disease detection, good planes of nutrition, adequate ventilation, and effective treatment protocols for known health risks and pathogens. “If health problems persist, contact the herd veterinarian to see if diagnostics and/or other management changes are needed,” he concluded.

For farmers that find themselves much closer to wildfires, such as the ones that burned across the western United States last year, the impacts can be more pronounced. Learn more by reading the article, “Western wildfires cost cows and calves dearly,” that appeared in the March 2023 issue of Hoard’s Dairyman.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2023
June 29, 2023

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