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