Considerations in Customizing Your Calf Vaccination Protocol

Published on Thu, 01/16/2020 - 9:14am

 Considerations in Customizing Your Calf Vaccination Protocol.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

Vaccination protocol is an integral part of the herd health program. No matter what stage in life, environment or segment of the beef cycle your animals find themselves in, they will always be at risk to some kind of pathogenic crisis. That’s why building an immune system up from calfhood is critical for your bottom line, animal welfare and industry integrity.

Vaccinations are only one element among many pieces of veterinary care. The finest program in the world won’t substitute either proper management or practical application, but it is an important element. Part of what makes vaccines successful is how customized they are to your distinct needs, goals, market and issues. Plenty of small considerations go into making this program truly “yours” and it may involve occasional evaluation and change over time.
Together with your veterinarian and management team, you can ensure your protocol not only effectively combats pathogens, but is also practical, manageable and fits your goals. From timing to scheduling to handling, there’s a lot of small things that can make all the difference.

Timing is everything
Let’s start from day one. The young calf is born with a functional but naïve, unexposed immune system. Data tells us this system matures around puberty, four to six months of age depending on breed and type, with full immunity to all exposed pathogens at around a year. Remember, an animal cannot be immune to pathogens it has not yet encountered in some way, shape or form.
From birth to puberty a calf will have limited response to vaccines, especially given intramuscularly or subcutaneous. Maternal antibodies, transferred via colostrum, are the primary defense at this age. For this reason, certain vaccinations, such as rotavirus and coronavirus, are recommended to be given to the cow prior to calving. Research has shown antibodies, especially those that offer protection against respiratory pathogens, until about three months. Conveniently, this is right around when many cattlemen do their first wave of shots.
Fast forward to weaning time. This activity is an especially critical time period, a major milestone making it very convenient for a lot of pre-conditioning procedures to take place. However, this can also work against you. The stressful event causes a surge in cortisol levels, shown to inhibit the immune response. Calves that are roughly processed and vaccinated immediately following separation from their dams mount a weaker immune response.
In a bulletin, New Mexico State University outlined some excellent options to increase immune response when coordinating vaccinations and weaning. The first option is to let calves in sit undisturbed for the first night after separation allowing cortisol levels to drop, then process the following day. This would be followed by a post-weaning round of booster shots about a month later. This system works best for calves that will be on the ranch at least 45 days post-weaning. The University’s research on 800 calves from 48 sources supported that this method, involving calves who were weaned and shipped to feedlot after 41 days or more, resulted in animals who did better in the feedlot environment than calves shipped less than 40 days after weaning. Another way to avoid cortisol levels would be to vaccination 3-4 weeks prior to weaning, but this would involve additional handling, time and labor.
The other options would be for calves to be processed about a month before weaning, then shipped the day of weaning, preferable, or calves processed only the day of weaning if there is no opportunity to handle them beforehand. The latter is correlated with the weakest response, but it may be the only option.

Customizing for your goals
The tricky thing about developing protocol isn’t deciding which animals to vaccination or what to give them, your team and veterinarian can determine that easy enough. It’s making the program effective yet practical in the real world. Not just the real world, the world of your individual ranch.
The intensity of your program will depend on how much handling you can afford to do and where your animals will head after weaning. For example, many producers start their calves with the 7 or 8-way clostridial shot pre-weaning, anywhere from 2-4 months of age. Some producers give a preliminary round as young as birth or tagging. Though immediate immune response is limited, research suggests this course of action can enhance the response later in life. Intranasal (or oral for certain products) is most effective at this age. In fact, rotavirus and corona virus shots are often administered to calves in this way if the cow was unvaccinated herself and can’t provide those antibodies via colostrum. If your calf crop is of manageable size, this very early vaccination is one way to enhance your program.
Weaning and post-weaning shots are where you really need to be thinking about the near future. Certain sales require calves receive only modified live virus (MLV) vaccines for IBR, BVD, PI3 and BRSV as opposed to killed. Some require BVD testing and less routine vaccines like Brucellosis. Breed sales and crossing stateliness may also have more stringent requirements, so be sure both you and your vet are up to date on requirements. Even if you’re not retaining your heifers but your customers are breeders, consider what their expectations are. Vibriosis and leptospirosis are most standard, but it varies greatly depending on region.
Good healthcare protocol is more than simply choosing the right products, it’s optimal timing, proper handling and educated implementation. Remember, this isn’t just for your financial success or just your animals welfare while they’re in your care. Ultimately the health you start to build will impact but all those who come into contact with your animals up until they’re on the rail.