Best Timing for Vaccinating Calves

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Early Prevention is Worth More Than a Pound of Cure

The first 60 days of life are critical to the lifetime health of your calves. In fact, research shows that healthy calves should double their birthweight at 56 days of age. However, calves that succumb to sickness or disease may be unable to completely recover or never fully catch up. That is why when it comes to protecting calves’ immunity from disease, prevention is the best prescription.

So how do you ensure that your calves get off to a healthy start this calving season and when is the best time to vaccinate your calves against disease?

This is a question a lot of producers are asking, according to Dr. Janzen, Professor, Production Animal Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary, and he admits, answering the question is not always easy.

The answer to an effective calf vaccination program that avoids unneeded cost and supports a healthy calving season, he says, lies in part, to understanding the risks of disease, early prevention and the calving environment unique to your operation.

As a general rule, all calves have traditionally been vaccinated at or around two months of age. Historically, whenever calves were handled, vaccination for Clostridial diseases, like Blackleg and Malignant edema with a 7- or 8-way bacterin/toxoid that recently also included an H somni antigen, was done.

Currently many veterinarians recommend immunization also include a modified live viral vaccine (IBR-BVD-P13) that commonly is given intranasally.

  • This will help protect calves against respiratory diseases.
  • In addition, it will provide a solid foundation for fall boosters and minimize sickness come fall weaning.

If calves are considered to be at considerable risk to pneumonia, immunization should include the common antigens for bacterial pneumonia; Mannheimia hemolytica and Histophilus somni. The antigen for M hemolytica is often found in several commercial respiratory vaccines and as indicated, H somni is a common component of Clostridial bacterins.

But as research is suggesting and more ranchers are realizing, there are times when vaccination at birth or early vaccination within the first weeks of life should be considered as well.

How Early is Too Early? Are Early Calf Vaccinations Effective?

The question of early vaccination is escalating amongst calf producers as the dynamics of the industry are changing. Many producers are calving later, born on grass or turned out to grass at a very young age. Some ranches are now opting out of traditional branding. In these cases, the only opportunity to administer protective vaccines is at a young age or alternatively, when the calves are processed when they come off grass in the fall.

According to Dr. Janzen, this is risky business, as a failure to vaccinate young calves leaves them extremely vulnerable and susceptible to calf-hood diseases. Although some producers may be hesitant to vaccinate baby calves because of concern from maternal antibodies (colostrum) interfering with their response to vaccines, Dr. Janzen advises that best practices, in his opinion, would be to vaccinate very young, or at birth, rather than leave it to fall.

When it comes to vaccinating newborn calves, Dr. Janzen explains that it is an approach of “some is better than none.” Janzen feels that we should tweak our thinking when it comes to all of the research and studying of colostrum and its inhibiting factors on early or at birth vaccination in calves.

“There is no doubt that all that we have learned these last few years is that yes, there is interference with maternal immunity when it comes to vaccinating baby calves – no question. But it won’t obliterate it. This is especially true when administering an intranasal vaccine, as it stimulates the local immunity and even though it may not stimulate the systemic or humeral immunity to the same extent, there is memory response and it will offer a level of immune defense,” advises Dr. Janzen. “This memory response in the body will also present a stronger immunity when the booster shot is administered.”

Answering the Call of Risk – Early Vaccination Recommendations in Calves:

High Risk Diseases

“Once born and on range, the biggest risk that our calves are under in Alberta is to Clostridial diseases,” says Dr. Janzen. “Blackleg and that whole family of diseases which are acute and highly fatal – that’s what you want to vaccinate for, and you want to vaccinate for that at birth. I would accept that antibodies received from colostrum will compromise the immune system – but it won’t not respond at all. Even at birth, the calf will have cell mediated response.”

Early Vaccination Recommendations

In addition to early vaccination against the high risk of Clostridial diseases, Dr. Janzen recommends protecting calves with early vaccination in the following circumstances:

  • Calves that are cycled through the barn or if they are confined behind the barn, as they are at high risk for respiratory disease. In these circumstances Dr. Janzen recommends these calves be protected and vaccinated with a respiratory intranasal vaccine at birth.
  • For cow/calf producers who retain ownership of their calves and place them into feed yards; their calves should be vaccinated at birth, then again at weaning or in a pre-weaning vaccination, as the calves’ immune systems will remember and effectively the pre-weaning vaccination will serve as a booster.
  • Newborn calves that didn’t nurse soon enough to get the full benefit of colostrum from their mother’s milk.

The best prescription for a healthy calving season starts with best practices, which includes predetermining the level of risk facing each and every calf. As any sick calves in your herd will greatly increase infectious pressure throughout the herd, preventing sickness in the first few days or weeks of life is easier than treating and nursing sick calves or dealing with death loss.

There are two methods of early vaccination; intranasally to create local immunity or systemically via an injectable. Contact your veterinarian to discuss the level of risk your calves will sustain, learn more about the options and best methods for an early vaccination protocol that best supports your calving program and environment.

For over 20 years, UFA has supported cow/calf producers, by delivering the tools, products, services and support, to ensure a healthy start and strong finish to the calving season. To learn more about our products, please visit your local UFA or connect with one of our livestock specialists by calling 1-877-258-4500, Option 1 or visit our Contacts page.