The person who first uttered those famous words, “if a little bit is good, a lot is better,” probably didn't have a pistol-grip syringe in his hand. But, within reason, applying that thought to your branding and weaning calf-health program may not be such a bad idea.

It all depends, says Larry Hollis, Extension veterinarian at Kansas State University, on how you market your cattle. If the calves are weaned in the trailer on the way to a sale barn, you're not going to get paid for doing anything special. “So at that point, you do what you need to do so those calves will stay healthy until you wean them and ship them.”

While that type of system produces what feedyard managers politely call “high-risk” cattle, you still need to vaccinate your calves so they stay healthy at least long enough to get to the sale barn. The minimum, Hollis says, is a Blackleg vaccination at branding. “Then if they have experienced summer pneumonia problems, I want to get a respiratory vaccine in them as calves.”

Value-added health

However, if you're using your calf-health program as one leg of a value-added marketing effort, you'll want to take the “good thing” that a vaccination program offers and make it better.

That's the approach that Jim Lerwick and his daughter-in-law, Diane, take. They're part of Lerwick Bros., a cattle and grain operation at Pine Bluffs, WY, that works hard at marketing their calves for all the dollars the market has to offer.

And a part of that effort is their herd-health program. “There are two areas we're covering” with their health program, Jim says. “One is just insurance. That's the fear factor. What if we had an outbreak within our herd or in a neighbor's herd that somehow impacted us?”

Beyond that, however, their health program figures in the bottom line. “Our relationship with the market and our experience indicate that the health program has been worth somewhere between $2.50 and $6/cwt. over time,” Jim says.

It starts, says Bill Shain with Bluff Veterinary Clinic, with a modified-live vaccination program with the cows to get maximum protection against bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) and prevent persistent infection (PIs). “But it would be our impression that using modified-live annual vaccines in the cows seems to help the overall herd health,” says Shain, who is also Lerwick's veterinarian.

From that baseline, Lerwick's calf health program is designed to give every calf every opportunity to succeed. Calving season begins the end of January and calves get a seven-way clostridial shot at birth, Diane says. The Lerwicks use the Sandhills Calving System, segregating calves by age in 10-day increments for 30 days. This prevents direct and indirect transmission of pathogens.

Then at branding, which usually happens the end of March to the first of April, the calves get another round of shots, including a five-way, modified-live viral; a pasteurella; and another seven-way, according to Shain. The five-way modified-live viral contains IBR, two strains of BVD, PI3 and BRSV. In addition, calves are castrated and de-horned, he says, and the cows are vaccinated with a modified-live, five-way plus vibrio and lepto before they're turned out with the bulls.

“Years ago, we thought it didn't do any good to use a modified-live respiratory viral at branding,” Hollis says. The thought was that the passive immunity from the colostrum interfered with the ability of the vaccine to produce an immune response. But new research has shown that a modified-live shot at branding or turnout stimulates immunological memory, Hollis says, and provides additional protection for the calf.

When the Lerwicks' calves hit summer grass after branding, they're ready to grow and gain. “We really don't have any health problems,” Diane says, who handles the operation's recordkeeping and health program. “We will treat less than 1% of our calves between branding and weaning time.”

They wean mid-September and precondition the calves prior to weaning. Three weeks before weaning, they gather the pastures and work the cattle. The cows are wormed with a pour-on and the calves are given their last round of shots, a modified-live, five-way and a Pasteurella vaccine, Shain says, plus access to free-choice mineral. “For the calves they retain (as replacement heifers), I recommend they boost the five-way viral at weaning,” Shain says, as well as de-worming.

Both Shain and Hollis prefer modified-live vaccines. But Hollis says timing is important if the cows haven't been vaccinated with a modified-live product because of the potential for the calves to shed enough of the vaccine in their nasal secretions to cause the cow to abort. So, with unvaccinated cows, it's best to work the calves before you turn in the bulls.

Why modified-live vaccines? “Modified-lives work faster, stronger and longer, give more complete protection and they're a lot cheaper,” Hollis says. But they do require proper handling so they don't get inactivated by disinfectants or heat and lose their efficacy.

The problem with killed vaccines is they only stimulate half of the immune system. And the half they tend to miss is what's called cell-mediated immunity. “For many of our viral diseases, we need cell-mediated immunity to get full protection,” Hollis says. “Killed viral products don't produce cell-mediated protection most of the time. And modified live does every time,” assuming you've done your chute-side job right and are administering a fully viable dose.

And, Hollis says, make sure the Mannheimia (Pasteurella) vaccine you give at weaning contains a leukotoxoid. “That's a critical element. It stimulates protection against leukotoxin, which is what rips the lungs up” during a respiratory outbreak.

Does it work?

Jim says their health program has worked well for them for a number of years. They have retained ownership through the feedyard on at least a portion of their calf crop for the past 20 years, giving them lots of feedyard performance and carcass data.

They retain ownership because that gives potential buyers confidence when they bid on the rest. “If they (buyers) realize that I have retained ownership, for reasons I believe I can quantify, they know that I have confidence in what I've done and am willing to risk the feeding cycle to recapture that value,” Jim asserts.

Jim says they're not trying to compete in the “buy ‘em cheap” marketplace. “If I'm buying cattle to upgrade because somebody else has made a bunch of mistakes and I can buy them cheap enough and upgrade them at a reasonable cost, that's one thing,” he says.

“But if I'm buying cattle that I know every effort has been made to preserve and invest potential growth and profitability in, that's a totally different deal. And we fit in that category. We want to make that calf, that package underneath that hide, as potentially profitable (as we can), whether we continue to own it or someone else does.”

Low-stress weaning

Weaning calves the traditional way can be stressful — on the calves, on the cows and on you. In recent years, several weaning options have come to the forefront to help reduce stress on the calves. And that, proponents say, has measurable health effects.

Traditional weaning. It's likely that most calves are still weaned the traditional way, where they're separated from their dams, processed (vaccinated, dehorned, castrated) and held in a dry lot or pasture until the bawling subsides. Or they're cut from the cows, loaded on a trailer and weaned while the wheels roll to the sale barn. As researchers have observed in the “weaning by blacktop” method, the question isn't why some of them get sick; the question is why they don't all get sick.

Fenceline weaning. To help reduce stress, some producers have adopted fenceline weaning. That's where the calves are cut from their dams but the cows and calves are pastured next to each other. Research suggests that reducing stress on the calf can help improve immune function and reduce morbidity. According to South Dakota State University, fenceline weaning has been shown to reduce the signs of behavioral stress.

Nose tags. Another alternative is to use a weaning device, such as a nose flap, that prevents the calf from nursing but allows it to drink and eat from a trough and graze. It's based on the concept that the stress of weaning comes from breaking the social interaction between cow-calf pairs, not from preventing the calf from nursing. After a week or so, the pairs are separated. Both research and practical experience finds very little bawling or other outward signs of behavioral stress in the calves and cows.
— Burt Rutherford