Herd health: Vaccinations for the cow-calf operation

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One of the most common questions in cow/calf production is what vaccines are necessary on an annual basis to keep the herd healthy. The guidelines set forth in this article are designed to help answer that question but the details of what products to use and when to administer them are best decided by the producer and his or her veterinarian. Technology is constantly changing and updating science to make today’s vaccines safer and more effective than any time in the history of cattle production. However, the sheer number and types of vaccines and dewormers available today can make the correct selection of products challenging at the very least. Every farm is different with regards to the disease risk the cattle face and the challenges of labor and facilities needed to work the cattle. Your veterinarian is equipped with the knowledge and skills to determine what will work best for your unique situation.

Consult your veterinarian before instituting any health protocol.


Cows and Bulls 4-6 weeks Prior to Breeding

1. Viral respiratory vaccine (IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSV) with Campylobacter fetus (Vibriosis) and 5-way Leptospirosis- Fetal Protection (FP) product preferred. If the cow is pregnant at the time of vaccination, use a killed vaccine product to reduce the risk of accidental abortion. Certain modified live vaccines can be used in pregnant animals but only if used strictly according to label directions.

2. 7 way Clostridial (Blackleg)-necessary if under 2 years of age. Optional after that depending on the exposure risk of the herd.

3. Deworm-perform at least twice per year (spring and summer). If only once is possible, deworm in late June or July. Deworming in the fall is a good practice to reduce the number of worms that overwinter in the cow but is not as important as the spring and summer when larvae are active in the pasture.

4. Tag cattle for identification and/or re-tag those that have lost tags.

5. Breeding Soundness Exams are highly recommended for herd bulls.


Heifers 6 weeks Prior to Breeding

1. Viral respiratory vaccine (IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSV) with Campylobacter fetus (Vibriosis) and 5-way Leptospirosis-Modified live or killed product. Fetal Protection (FP) product is preferred. Follow label directions; some vaccines require a booster and some do not.

2. 7 way Clostridial (Blackleg)

3. Deworm with a branded (not generic) product. A heifer is under increased nutritional demand because she is still growing herself and trying to reproduce. Young animals do not have the immunity to parasites that adult cattle possess; therefore it is important to use effective dewormers.


Calves 1-3 months of age:

1. Identify with tag

2. Vaccinate with 7 way Clostridial (Blackleg) vaccine-Although the calves are too young to mount a good immune response, this dose of vaccine will initiate the immune process.

3. Dehorn, Castrate-the earlier these practices are completed, the better.

4. Optional Practices:
a. Implant steers at the time of castration (unless you plan to sell calves in an organic or natural market)
b. Viral Respiratory Vaccine-Killed, MLV *, or intranasal (preferred for young animals)
c. Pinkeye vaccine (administer in late spring/summer just before fly season)
d. Deworm-Begin deworming calves at 4-8 weeks old depending on time of year and expected level of pasture contamination with parasite larvae.
e. Test for BVD-PI (ear notch)-Consult your veterinarian if this is something to consider. If BVD has been diagnosed in an animal from your farm or there is a history of unexplained abortions in the herd, testing all calves is the proven first step to find persistently infected (PI) animals.


Calves 2-3 weeks pre-weaning:

1. Viral respiratory vaccine (IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSV)-Killed or MLV * but follow label directions regarding MLV usage in nursing calves.

2. Deworm with an endectocide for internal and external parasites. Use a branded product-not a generic. A drench anthelmintic such as Safeguard, Synanthic, or Valbazen may be used but a second product will be required for external parasite control.

3. 7 way Clostridial vaccine (Blackleg). Follow label directions regarding the need for a booster.

4. Optional:
a. Vaccinate with Mannheimia haemolytica toxoid-This vaccine, commonly known as a “Pasteurella shot” or “Pneumonia shot” is given pre-weaning in anticipation of the stress associated with weaning. In a low risk situation in which the calves are weaned on the farm and no new additions are added to the group, this vaccine may be delayed until after weaning. Consult your veterinarian and check your marketing plan since many programs specify what vaccines must be administered and when in order to participate.


Calves at Weaning:

Delay working calves until the stress of weaning is over. It is best to wait until the calves are eating, drinking, and most (if not all) have stopped walking and bawling.

1. Booster viral respiratory vaccine-MLV strongly recommended /often required by special sales. a. For Replacement Heifers: Viral respiratory with Campylobacter fetus (Vibriosis) and 5-way Leptospirosis vaccine included. Booster according to label directions-MLV is strongly recommended for recently weaned females to be kept in the herd.

2. Booster 7 way Clostridial if required by label direction

3. Optional Practices:
a. Implant-Follow label directions if re-implanting. Do not implant females to be used for breeding purposes. Do not implant if planning to sell on the natural or organic markets.
b. Pasteurella multocida and/or Histophilus somni (formerly known as Hemophilus somnus) vaccines-consult your veterinarian.


Cows after calves are weaned:

1. Check cows for pregnancy by palpation, ultrasound, or blood test. If open, strongly consider culling her.

2. Check for other problems: Eyes, mouth, udder, feet and legs, body condition, disposition.

3. Scours Vaccine-Administer prior to calving. Products vary on when to administer them so follow label directions carefully.


Additional Considerations:

1. If calves cannot be processed pre-weaning, then do the steps for “Calves at Weaning” then, in 2-3 weeks, booster the viral respiratory vaccine (and the 7 way Clostridial if required on label). If castrations and dehorning were not done earlier, these practices need to be completed as soon as possible. Tetanus vaccination is strongly recommended when performing late castration; especially if banding. Consult your veterinarian regarding whether to use a tetanus toxoid or antitoxin.

2. *Modified Live Vaccines (MLV) provide fast, broad immunity and are excellent stimulators of cell-mediated immunity. They are generally preferred in recently weaned calves and usually required by most preconditioned sales. However, only use modified live vaccines in pregnant cows and in nursing calves if the cows were vaccinated with MLV in the last 12 months (check label for specific requirements). If this requirement is not met, a killed vaccine must be used until the cow is open and the calf is weaned.

3. Killed vaccines provide safe, protective immunity but must be given twice (usually 2-3 weeks apart) if it is the first time viral respiratory vaccine is administered. Annual boosters are required after the initial two-shot sequence.

4. If heifers have been allowed to stay with the herd bull until weaning, most likely some are pregnant. A prostaglandin injection can be given to the heifers once they have been away from the bull a minimum of 10 days. These injections work best in early pregnancy so do not delay administration if needed.

5. Try to minimize the number of vaccines given at one time as much as possible. Multiple vaccinations cause neck soreness. Multiple Gram negative vaccines may cause cattle to spike a fever and go off feed for a short period of time.

6. Keep good vaccination records. Record date, vaccine name, serial numbers and expiration dates at a minimum.

7. Utilize fly control and pinkeye vaccine beginning in late spring.

8. Letters in a vaccine name mean:
a. IBR, BVD, BRSV and PI3 : Diseases included in a viral respiratory vaccine.
b. An “FP” in the vaccine name stands for “fetal protection” and means protection against fetal infection and abortion due to the BVD virus.
c. An “HB” in the vaccine name stands for the strain of Leptospira known as “Hardjo bovis” that is a common cause of abortion in cattle.
d. “HS” stands for “Histophilus somni” (formerly known as Hemophilus somnus)
e. “L5” stands for the 5 strains of Leptospirosis.
f. “V” stands for “Vibriosis”


In summary, vaccination programs must be designed around the specific needs of your cattle. There are numerous vaccines available on the market for other diseases (for example: Brucellosis, Anaplasmosis, Trichomoniasis, Clostridium perfringens Type A, Foot Rot, Papilloma or Wart Virus) but they may or may not be useful in your situation. Always discuss your concerns with your veterinarian to develop the plan that will work the best for you.

Source: Dr. Michelle Arnold, Large Ruminant Extension Veterinarian, University of Kentucky


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