Calves have a better chance of staying healthy their first weeks of life if they ingest an adequate amount of good-quality colostrum soon after birth. But, preventing calfhood disease is a combination of many factors, including a clean environment and well-nourished, healthy mothers with strong immunities. Vaccinating cows ahead of calving can help build those peak antibody levels in colostrum, but timing is critical.

Shelie Laflin, Kansas State University clinical associate professor of agricultural practices, explains that a cow starts collecting antibodies in her mammary glands 4-6 weeks prior to calving.

“Since it takes about two weeks for an animal to respond to vaccination at a maximum potential, we’re looking at a minimum of eight weeks prior to calving for vaccination. If vaccine is given too close to calving, you won’t get much effect,” she explains.

There are several types of vaccine, most which initially require a two-dose sequence, followed by an annual booster.

“In heifers, especially, or the first time the cowherd receives that particular vaccine, they need the two-dose series, which usually is administered two weeks apart. Thus, you need to start this vaccination series 10 weeks prior to calving,” she says.

Chris Chase, a DVM in the South Dakota State University Depart-ment of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, says it’s important to have maximum titers a few weeks ahead of calving, because this directly reflects what will be in the colostrum. “Antibodies aren’t produced in the mammary gland; they’re transported from the cow’s bloodstream,” he explains.

“The mammary gland has specialized receptors to snag antibodies. Those receptors show up 4-6 weeks before parturition, but their ability to concentrate antibodies is highest at about 2-3 weeks prior to calving. This is when you want peak antibody titers,” he says. Vaccinate too early and the cow reaches peak level a month or more before calving, and you miss that window, he says. 

Oil-based vaccines

Vaccines that contain oil as an adjuvant provide antibody titers that last longer than vaccines using a different type of adjuvant (such as alum). Thus, your choice of product may depend on when you have the opportunity to vaccinate cows, Chase says.

Vaccines that don’t use oil can leave calves unprotected if the calving interval is 60 days or longer. Cows calving toward the end of the calving period could no longer have much titer; thus, their colostrum contains very little antibody compared to cows calving early in the season. If a product without an oil adjuvant is used, producers should consider revaccinating any cows that haven’t yet calved in order to boost their titers and the protective potential of their colostrum, he says.

“Oil-based products must be administered farther ahead of calving than other types of vaccines. If giving two doses to heifers, the first should be at least 10-12 weeks pre-calving, and the second about 4-6 weeks pre-calving. Only a single dose is needed in subsequent years, administered 4-6 weeks before calving,” he says.


Photo by Lauren Chase, Montana Stockgrowers Association

Which diseases?

Vaccination should always be discussed with your veterinarian to decide the best strategy for your particular situation, especially if pre-calving vaccines haven’t been previously used.

“Take into consideration the diseases that have been diagnosed in your herd and make a plan. Here are the problems, here is the best approach, here is the timing for the vaccinations,” Chase says.

Your veterinarian can help diagnose the cause of a particular health problem by taking diagnostic samples or posting dead calves. “There are good products that protect calves against gastrointestinal (GI) infections, such as rotavirus and coronavirus, E. coli, and Clostridium perfringens type C and D,” Chase says. These can help prevent scours in baby calves.

“The big debate is when trying to prevent respiratory diseases by vaccinating the calves rather than getting protection from maternal antibodies. Some producers won’t vaccinate cows against bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV), for example, because they’re afraid the maternal antibodies a calf absorbs from colostrum will interfere with modified-live virus (MLV) vaccines given to the calf. This is changing now that intranasal products for calves are available that feature very little interference from maternal antibodies,” Chase says.

Colostrum is number one

A critical element in calf health is ensuring each newborn nurses in a timely manner and gets an adequate amount of quality colostrum. If the calf can’t nurse for some reason, or its nursing is delayed, you’ve wasted your money on vaccine, Chase says.

“After about 12 hours of age, the calf’s ability to absorb antibodies is diminished, and completely gone by 24 hours,” Laflin says. The optimum time to absorb maximum amount of antibodies is within the first 2-4 hours after birth.

“Making sure the calf gets up quickly and can actually nurse an adequate volume is crucial. An 80- to 100-lb. calf should suck out both quarters on one side of the average cow during its first nursing,” she says.

If a calf is pulled and slow to get up, Laflin recommends milking out the cow and tubing the calf with colostrum. “If it was a heifer and a hard pull, she may lie down for several hours and the calf won’t have a chance to nurse,” she explains. 

Keep in mind that some heifers are slow to mother their calves, meaning that their calves don’t get a chance to nurse right away. Or, if cows are calving in a confined and crowded area, the calf may try to nurse the wrong cow, or another cow may claim the calf. It’s important to ensure that proper bonding and nursing take place. 

“Pre-calving vaccines do work. They increase immunity in the cow and antibody production in the mammary gland – if given at the appropriate interval before calving. But whether they decrease disease in the young calf will depend on whether the calf gets enough colostrum within the appropriate timeframe, and the environmental pathogen load,” Laflin says. 

Don't short nutrition

A dam’s nutrition will affect her colostrum quality. While it’s common to feed beef cows poorer quality forage, proper supplementation is important to ensure they have enough energy, protein and trace minerals for proper growth/development of the fetus, and production of quality colostrum.

“Vaccination alone won’t solve problems. Some people think the answer is in a bottle, but the immune system doesn’t get a free ride when it comes to nutrition. When you vaccinate, there has to be enough energy, protein and other nutrients for it to work,” Chris Chase, a South Dakota State University DVM, says.

Studies on immune response

Chris Chase, South Dakota State University DVM, is involved in a study in which cows were fed 80% of NRC requirements during gestation. The study’s main purpose is to examine cow nutrition’s effects on muscling/marbling in the calves, but it’s also looking at immune response in the calves.

“If we don’t feed cows properly, not only are we cheating colostrum quality but we could be affecting the growth, development and immune response of that calf for longer than we realized,” he explains.

“Fetal programming in calves includes immune response. For example, in calves infected with bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) in the final trimester, we used to say that the calf’s immune system is working by that point, the infection will be controlled, and the calf will be normal. Now, it’s clear that there’s a negative effect on the immune system once the calf is born.

“The same effect may occur if the cow doesn’t have enough energy in her diet. After the calf is born, you can’t make up for shortages during fetal development,” Chase says.

IBR-BVD vaccines are a must

Cowherds should always be vaccinated against infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) – not only to prevent abortion and disease in cows, but to protect the fetus during gestation and the newborn calf via antibodies in colostrum.

James England, a DVM in the University of Idaho’s Caine Veterinary Teaching Center, says many beef herds are vaccinated routinely at the time of pregnancy checking.

“For these herds, I recommend cows be given modified-live viral (MLV) vaccines for respiratory diseases and abortion (BVD-IBR-BRSV vaccination) and clostridial boosters. If cows have already had their two-shot series with scour vaccines, we just booster them once annually at preg-checking.”

If cows are confirmed to have been vaccinated with IBR-BVD previously, he recommends an MLV vaccine at preg-check time. “If we’re unsure, we use the killed vaccine,” he says.

Some of the MLV vaccines that are safe to give to pregnant cows that have already been immunized may cause abortion if you vaccinate cows that have not been immunized previously. 

He suggests producers work with their veterinarian on a herd health program for their situation.

“You also need to revisit your vaccination program every year because there may be some newer forms of vaccines or additional information about them or some better ideas about timing,” England says.

“The goal is to have every cow vaccinated and immunized against IBR-BVD – hopefully, with an MLV vaccine – before she’s bred for the first time as a heifer. After that, she just needs an annual booster, an MLV vaccine once a year.”

Vaccination can’t fix poor management

Vaccination will not compensate for poor management, says Shelie Laflin, Kansas State University clinical associate professor of agricultural practices. “Vaccines can be helpful, but you can never overcome a high pathogen load with vaccination,” she says.

Laflin firmly believes in programs like the Sand Hills Calving System. This is a system in which the calving herd is moved to new ground every two weeks, leaving calved-out pairs behind. This keeps calving lots clean, and moving new pairs to a clean pasture can minimize contamination. Thus, the younger calves are never exposed to feces from older calves that may be scouring.

“Vaccines can be helpful, but don’t depend on them as a crutch. You can vaccinate a cow multiple times, but if she’s lying in manure and the calf gets a mouthful of E. coli during birth (before he gets colostrum), he won’t be protected. Even if it nurses quickly, dirty teats can harbor E. coli or Salmonella; that calf will probably get sick.” It’s always a race between antibodies and pathogens, to get to the calf’s gastrointestinal tract first, she says.

A scours problem can vary from year to year, depending on weather conditions and how wet/muddy calving areas might be – and how dirty cows are. Cow vaccination might precede a better following year, leading a producer to think the vaccine worked. In reality, the lower sickness rate might be due to drier, cleaner conditions.

“A scours problem can also vary within the same herd, between heifers and cows. If you maintain them in separate pastures, this can make a difference,” Laflin says.

On average, heifers have less quantity and quality of colostrum. Often the volume is less than from a mature cow, and a heifer hasn’t been exposed to as many different types of pathogens in her short life. To protect heifers’ calves, address any management issues and make sure heifers are appropriately vaccinated.

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer in Salmon, ID.