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.