Preconditioned cattle usually aren't, says John Peirce, and it doesn't take very long after they arrive at a feedyard to know exactly how much preconditioning they didn't receive.

“Every pen of calves gives you a report card on its health-management background,” he says, and the grade is given in dollars and cents. If Peirce were a schoolteacher, he'd give the cattle industry an “F” for its performance with a vaccine gun.

He already does, in a sense. He says AzTx Cattle Company, a cattle feeding and ranching enterprise in Hereford, TX, no longer buys calves through preconditioned calf sales, because they aren't worth the premium they bring.

In fact, the AzTx veterinarian says 80% of cow-calf producers do a poor job of preparing their calf crops for the challenges that lie in their future.

How does he know this? From working with thousands of calves touted as being preconditioned, but in fact really weren't.

The reason? Preconditioned calves, to some extent, are vaccinated with what amounts to little more than sterile water, due to improper handling of modified-live vaccines. And when those calves get to a feedyard, they fall apart. In short, Peirce says, most ranchers aren't vaccinating their calves, they're shooting blanks.

His goal is to change that. AzTx has initiated a supply-chain alliance called AzTx Branded Beef. It's designed to link cow-calf producers with AzTx feedyards, and help cattlemen realize the full value of their calf crops.

And it all starts, Peirce says, at the end of a vaccine gun.

“I don't think we can buy our way out of the health dilemmas that affect our cattle. I think we have to go back to the basics and then perform these basics perfectly — appreciating the fragile nature of modified live viral vaccines and then critically handle and administer these products.”

For example, he was on a New Mexico cow-calf ranch recently. “A 50-dose vaccine bottle was repeatedly exposed to sunlight. The 50-cc pistol grip gun stayed out in the sun until it was empty. The last half of the calves vaccinated from this bottle likely received sterile water.”

Peirce says this ranch spent the same money as someone who takes care of the vaccine, yet they got little to nothing in return for their efforts to prepare those calves for the next phase of their lives. “Generally speaking, the bottom 20%, performance-wise, can account for as much as 80% of any red ink” in the feedyard, he says. “Removing the bottom 20% can enhance profit potential 30-70%. A key performance issue is the quality of the immune system of each individual calf.”

A little attention to the basics, he says, can go a long ways toward giving that bottom 20% the boot. Here's the protocol that Peirce uses with the ranches that participate in the AzTx Branded Beef alliance:

Viral vaccine management

  • Keep all vaccines refrigerated until ready to use.

  • Transport vaccines in a cooler with cooler packs. Don't transport more than you'll use in a half-day.

  • Use 10-dose vials. Even if kept in the cooler, don't mix more than you'll use in 30 minutes.

  • A vaccine starts to deteriorate from the moment it's reconstituted. The rate of deterioration is enhanced as the temperature rises and exposure to direct sunlight is sustained. The goal is to get fresh, cool vaccine into the calf.

  • Utilize the one-hour rule. The clock starts ticking the moment the vaccine is mixed. An hour after mixing, even if it's still in the cooler, discard it. If you use a 10-dose bottle, you'll mind it a whole lot less.

Peirce says he often is accused of overkill with this protocol, something to which he readily admits. And he's often challenged on the one-hour rule because many vaccine labels claim to remain viable longer than that.

“That's not the point,” he says. “The point is we're trying to get focused on critical handling and administration, not on how many hours or minutes it's been. If we can adopt the philosophy of being ultra careful with the vaccines, everybody improves.”

Vaccine administration

  • Use clean equipment. Dirty equipment has a bacterial component and sometimes a fungal component that causes an inflammatory reaction at the injection site and often reduces the efficacy of the vaccine.

  • If using automatic syringes, use as short a tube as possible. A shroud or covering over the tubing is helpful. A 10-dose bottle, a very short tube and placing the vaccine gun back into a six-pack cooler after each calf is Peirce's solution. Remember, he says, you're doing this for the calf's benefit, not your convenience.

  • Never lay any vaccination equipment, with or without vaccine, down in the sun where it can heat up. Transport equipment in the cooler with the vaccine so it's already cool when the vaccine hits it.

  • Use sharp needles. Don't pick a number and say you're going to replace the needle every so many calves, because you may dull it sooner than that. Instead, simply replace the needle any time it doesn't easily cut through the skin.

  • Vaccinate in the neck. If trim is going to occur, let it occur in the neck area.

The point is quality, not speed

“Does doing the basics perfectly slow you down?” he asks. “A little, but it is still our protocol at a 90,000-head feedyard. We focus on doing every calf perfectly.” Remember, he says, it's not a speed event. It's a job-quality event.

AzTx Branded Beef requires two rounds of vaccinations, which can occur at branding and weaning; pre-weaning and weaning; or weaning and post-weaning. “We want a minimum of 17 days between vaccinations and then hold the calves for seven to 10 days prior to shipment after the second round,” he says.

He says to consult with your veterinarian on vaccine selection, because every operation is unique, with its own medical histories, environment and management. However, he strongly advises to avoid killed vaccines.

“Killed viral products do not appear to stimulate the immune system to produce an immune response durable enough to withstand the high-exposure environment of feedyards,” Peirce says. In fact, he goes so far as to say that if killed products are used, he doesn't want your calves.

Even with this protocol, Peirce says not every calf will be prepared for the feedyard. While he maintains that poor producer protocol is the main reason for a lack of immune response in a calf, immune suppression can result from stress; poor nutrition, including poor water quality and poor transfer of colostrum; and an inherited poor immune system.

In fact, Greg Quakenbush, director of U.S. veterinary operations for Pfizer Animal Health, says with healthy cattle, properly handled and administered modified-live vaccines, and proper vaccine selection, you can expect 90-95% of calves to respond to the vaccine.

“If, on a good day, one could expect 90-95% response to the vaccine, what would one expect with stressed and ill cattle and then throw in improperly handled or administered vaccines? I think the answer is obvious and the financial losses could be huge,” he says.

Peirce agrees. “Medicine costs for treating poorly prepared calves are direct expense dollars. Preventive costs, such as vaccines, are invested dollars that can be returned. All the antibiotics in the world are a drop in the bucket compared with what the animal can do for itself with a properly prepared immune system.”

Peirce believes a two-tiered marketing system is coming your way, with one marketing channel for “prepared” calves and one for non-prepared calves. “If you're thinking of premiums, stop. The real world does not long utilize premiums. Soon, the prepared calves will be the market and the unprepared calves discounted.”

He defines a prepared calf as having two rounds of modified-live vaccines critically administered, individually ID'd and source- and age-verified.

You can do otherwise and still sell your calves. But it won't be to Peirce.

“If your cattle have a history of sickness and poor performance at the feedyard, and the records speak for themselves, your cattle are not worth the same as those that don't. How much has this, does this and is this going to cost you?” he asks.