Picture a table with five legs. On that tabletop, which represents “management,” sits a glass of water. Now, says Mike Baker, a veterinarian with St. Paul Veterinary Clinic in St. Paul, NE, picture each leg with a separate label. One tag says environment; the others are labeled nutrition, genetics, health and, finally, marketing.

“Inside that glass of water is your profit potential,” Baker says. “If you get one of those legs too tall or too short, you start dumping water out of the glass. All those factors are intertwined, so management involves keeping those legs balanced, so you’re not spilling your profit potential.”

That’s especially true when it comes to the leg labeled health, and that’s reason enough, Baker says, to consider vaccinating your calves at branding or turnout.

Traditionally, the recommendation has been to wait until calves are at least four months old before administering any vaccines. That way, goes the conventional wisdom, there’s a reduced chance that the antibodies in the colostrum will cancel the effects of the vaccine.

However, research is revealing new truths in this regard. Terry Engelken, a DVM and professor of beef production medicine at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says recent data shows an advantage to priming an animal’s immune system earlier in life. Given the realities of ranching, which dictate that you have to adjust your health program to glove with other management practices, that means vaccinating at branding.

What you use, however, depends a lot on your particular situation. That means developing a base vaccination protocol for your ranch around vaccines you know will work against the diseases your calves are commonly going to see, then modifying and adjusting depending on the situation. Both Baker and Engelken say the most effective way to do that is to use your veterinarian as a year-round herd health consultant instead of an emergency room paramedic.

In Baker’s area of Central Nebraska, summer pneumonia is an ongoing problem. When he came to the clinic 11 years ago, they’d already been recommending that their cow-calf clients “prime the immune pump” at branding with a 7-way plus pasteurella (Mannheimia haemolytica) vaccine when calves were 1½-3 months old. Baker has continued that regimen with outstanding results.

“And nobody else was really doing it” in other parts of the region, he says, as he looks back over the last few years. “But I think it’s gaining interest.”

Beyond that core protocol of a 7-way and pasteurella, Baker says additional recommendations are based on the particulars of each operation. “If past history indicates a problem still exists, a 5-way, modified-live virus (MLV) vaccine is added to the program,” he says, along with an IBR intranasal vaccine.

Engelken’s recommendations are similar. His base program for calves going to grass is a 5-way MLV and a 7-way blackleg. But he stresses that each ranch needs to look at its own particular set of circumstances and, working in conjunction with their local veterinarian, develop a program that best addresses its needs and challenges.

Baker says another important component of an effective vaccination program is nutrition, particularly minerals. Minerals play a very important role in vaccine response and – if you’re in an area where one of the major minerals is deficient, such as selenium, copper, manganese or zinc – adding a mineral supplement is a good idea.

“When giving $5-$6 of vaccine to that calf, the immune system needs all the pieces to build a good and lasting response,” he says.

Weaning stress

Weaning is traditionally when calfhood vaccination begins. Under an early vaccination protocol, however, the calf’s immune system is already primed to handle the stress that weaning brings.

And stress is key, Baker says. Any time a calf changes addresses, you’re adding stress, which compromises the immune system. Baker says vaccinating during or shortly after a stress period doesn’t yield the best results, which is why he recommends vaccination ahead of any major stresses.

So he recommends coming back two weeks ahead of weaning and boostering with the same vaccines given at turnout, and adding a 5-way viral vaccine. In times of higher risk, such as commingling with long-haul calves, he’ll add an IBR intranasal vaccination. He also recommends another round of injectible minerals to give that calf’s system every opportunity to respond to the vaccine.

Engelken recommends a similar approach. “Our base program would be to repeat the MLV 5-way and the blackleg product,” he says. “Also at weaning, depending on the history of the calves, we’d want to use something for internal and external parasite control.”

Beyond that, he says it’s necessary to think about any additional stressors the calves will encounter after weaning. Much of that revolves around the marketing program.

“What disease issues in addition to our base program do we expect those calves to see?” he asks. “Is he going to precondition those calves at home for 45 days and then sell them? Is he going to keep those calves at home until after the first of the year? Or is he going to retain ownership through the feedyard? That will impact our vaccination protocol.”

What about calving?

While the jury is still out on vaccinating at birth, both veterinarians recommend waiting a while.

“I think it comes down to why we’re vaccinating,” Engelken says. “If we’re not facing a disease issue immediately in those calves, I wait until all the calves are on the ground and then vaccinate going to grass.”

However, in the face of a respiratory disease outbreak in very young calves, a vaccination effort makes sense. And there, the veterinarians recommend a nasal vaccine.

“With the intranasal products, you’re getting protection in the upper respiratory tract, in the nose and tonsils,” Engelken says. “So really what you’re trying to do with those intranasal products is stimulate immunity at the very point of infection.”

Baker agrees. “I believe that a calf is going through many stressful changes in the first few weeks of life. I prefer to wait until calves are at least 3-4 weeks of age before vaccination.”

Don’t forget the cows

That’s not to say that a vaccination program isn’t important to newborn calves. But it’s the cows you want to focus on in an effort to give new calves a healthy start.

“It’s really pretty critical,” Engelken says of cowherd vaccination. “The amount of antibodies that go into the colostrum can be directly related to how that cow has been vaccinated,” he says. “So it’s very critical that we vaccinate the cow and then ensure the calf gets an adequate amount of colostrum.”

Both vets recommend vaccinating the cowherd at mid to late gestation. Usually, Engelken says, fall preg checking is a good time.

However, he says he first wants to focus on reproductive efficiency. “That’s our first and foremost goal because reproductive efficiency really drives whether the operation is going to be profitable.” Once that’s addressed, then you and your veterinarian can focus on tweaking the protocol to address potential health issues in the newborns.

“I think at times we tend to look at cow and calf vaccination programs as separate units and that’s a mistake,” Engelken says. “I think we’ve got to understand, when getting our vaccines to that suckling heifer calf, that she may eventually have an opportunity to become a replacement heifer and then a mature cow. Those vaccination programs for the calves, the replacement heifers and the mature cows really have to be thought out well and intertwined so we don’t leave any holes in the program.”

BQA Is Important

It is just as important to administer a vaccine in an approved method as it is to pick the correct vaccines, Baker says.

“Especially if an MLV is being given, a clean, detergent-free syringe should be used. It’s also important to protect the vaccine from sunlight and heat, as both can denature the proteins within the vaccine and make them useless,” he says.

“The best recommendation I have is to act like you’re training your replacement when working through this process. This helps me to identify critical control points. Becoming Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) certified is a good place to start when learning how to administer animal vaccines and medications.”