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Animal health Burt Rutherford

Is more always better with animal health?

Is more always better when it comes to animal health practices? This veterinarian prefers to "ask the cattle" before doing more.

When the subject of herd health surfaces, phrases like, “I never compromise on the health of my cattle” or “I don’t cut corners on my health program” are common. I like those statements, but the frugal part of my DNA (actually the majority) and the scientific part ask, “Is this ideal?” Let’s look at vaccination, antibiotics and deworming.

The “I vaccinate for everything” plan is rarely correct. Yes, calves that are unweaned, not vaccinated or dewormed, and that may have come from a herd where nutrition was not optimal, have a high risk of developing bovine respiratory disease (BRD). I get that. I also know that the calf’s immune system may not give an optimal immune response if we give too many antigens at once.

A calf does not need infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) virus vaccination in multiple routes or types of vaccine. If you are giving a modified live virus (MLV) both intranasal (IN) and injectable at the same time, one can be eliminated. The same can be said if you are using both a MLV vaccine (IN or injectable) and a killed vaccine at the same time. IBR vaccine is an excellent immunizer, but doubling up at once can overwhelm the immune system.

Giving high-risk calves a booster dose of BRD vaccine 14 to 21 days after the initial vaccination used to be routine. Now we are questioning that practice.

If the cattle are hitting their target on feed consumption, and sickness is below what is expected, your herd health veterinarian should reassess the timing or need for a booster. The phrase, “always ask the cattle” allows the veterinarian and you to decide the timing or need.

Don’t waste money on antigens you don’t need. Vaccinating for a disease that is never diagnosed in your area is a waste of money and the calf’s immune system. It costs the calf in protein and energy to mount an immune response. If a disease is not present, that protein and energy could have been better used for growth.

If you have health history for your purchases, that can help to eliminate redundant vaccinations. If, for example, a calf has already received two doses of clostridial (blackleg) vaccine, there would be almost no reason to give another. A seasoned DVM told me early in my career, “Never put a hole in an animal unless it is necessary,” and I have never forgotten that.

Am I saying you should start eliminating some of your vaccines in your protocol? Absolutely not. Meet with your herd health veterinarian and go over your protocol line by line. If something needs to be eliminated (or added), your herd health veterinarian is the best person to help you balance protection and cost.

Some producers use multiple antibiotics concurrently to treat BRD. I have never seen a study that advocates that practice. We have a multitude of excellent antibiotics to treat BRD, and each is approved for use alone.

Yes, we have seen antibiotic resistance to our pharmaceuticals develop over the past 30 years for a variety of reasons, but the most common reason for treatment failure is not due to using the wrong antibiotic or combination. Cattle are prey species, and they can “hide” that they are sick. Initiating treatment later in the disease process continues to be a major factor in treatment failure.

Research shows that using multiple drugs simultaneously is effective and economical when deworming calves as they enter the backgrounding yard or feedlot. Resistance to macrocyclic lactones (avermectin-type drugs) is common, and using an injectable macrocyclic lactone and an oral benzimidazole (white dewormer) upon arrival is commonplace.

Please do not make any changes to your current health protocol based on this article. The goal is to ask you to pause and think about everything you do from a health perspective, and then schedule a meeting with your herd health veterinarian. 

Hilton, DVM, PAS, DABVP (beef cattle practice), is a veterinary technical consultant, Elanco Animal Health; and clinical professor emeritus, Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.

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