How To Properly Store And Handle Cattle Vaccines

Optimize the effectiveness of your animal-health dollars by properly storing and handling vaccines. Read about the advantages and disadvantages of modified-live vs. killed vaccines here.

9 Min Read
How To Properly Store And Handle Cattle Vaccines

The biggest reasons for disease breaks in livestock often have little to do with the vaccine itself, but more to do with how that vaccine is handled and administered, says Dale Moore, director of Veterinary Medical Extension at Washington State University.

Vaccines are sensitive to heat and freezing and have special requirements for storage before use, she says. Always check the expiration dates on vaccine products, follow label directions, and be sure to keep vaccines refrigerated at proper temperature until use.

Safety & storage

Chris Chase, Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, South Dakota State University, says ultraviolet light can impair vaccines’ effectiveness, particularly modified-live virus (MLV) products. Vaccines need to be kept cold and dark from the time of purchase through transport to your place, and until use. “MLV vaccines are fragile and need to be handled carefully,” Chase says.

Matt Miesner, a Kansas State University assistant professor in clinical ag practices, says it’s also important to know how the vaccine was stored before you obtained it. That means always purchasing from reputable sources, he says.

When ordering vaccine by mail, Shannon Williams, Lemhi County Extension agent in Salmon, ID, recommends placing orders on Monday. “Then it won’t be sitting somewhere along the way over the weekend. Check the box as soon as it arrives and put it in your refrigerator immediately,” she says.

If you buy vaccines locally, take an insulated cooler for transport home, and use multiple ice packs.

“Even if you’re only going five miles, take a cooler, because delays can always happen,” she says, adding that multiple ice packs are best. “I’ve seen some coolers in which a single ice pack will not keep vaccine quite cold enough.

“When you buy from a retailer, ask if they have a thermometer in their vaccine refrigerator, and ask if they monitor and record temperature on a regular basis. Producers can help educate retailers about the importance of checking fridge temperature to make sure it’s maintained at 35-45° F,” she says.

Chase advises producers to always check expiration dates before purchase. “You want to make sure a vaccine won’t expire by the time you plan to use it. Avoid buying something that will expire in just a few months.”


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If you use an old refrigerator in your barn or shop to store vaccines, make sure it works efficiently. Keep a thermometer in it – and check it regularly.

“Outdoor temperatures can affect the refrigerator if it’s not in a well-insulated building,” Williams says. Older units may freeze items near the cooling unit, while vaccines stored in the door may get too warm if the door doesn’t seal properly.

“Keep a log of your refrigerator temperature to monitor if there are fluctuations that might be dangerous for vaccine. This could alert you if the refrigerator is starting to fail,” she says.

Chuteside handling

When working cattle, keep your insulated container in the shade, with the lid on it to minimize sunlight and dust contamination.

“If something happens to delay your work, don’t just put your syringe down and forget about it,” Miesner says. “Even a short time in the sun can inactivate an MLV vaccine,” he says.

Miesner says he’s seen producers configure coolers with holes in them, “like little holsters for syringe barrels – and ice bags inside the coolers –where you can stick the syringe into those holes.” The barrel fits all the way in, with only the handle sticking out, he says. This keeps the syringe contents cool and out of the sun when you aren’t using it, without having to continually open the lid of the cooler. All you have to do is grab the handle of the syringe.

Similarly to vaccine needing to stay cool in hot weather, it must be protected from freezing in cold weather.

“If, in cold weather, you set the syringe down (instead of putting it back in the cooler) while you do something else, and it freezes, this will damage the vaccine. Thawing it won’t resolve the problem because the freeze-thaw process will be detrimental,” Miesner says. If the needle freezes up between animals, a jar of warm water to immerse the needle works well, but don’t allow the vaccine to be continually freezing and thawing.

“Always use a new, sterile needle for refilling syringes. Don’t put a dirty needle into a new bottle, especially when mixing an MLV product. The product should always be going out the needle, and nothing coming back through unless it’s a new needle, or it will contaminate the contents of your syringe,” Miesner says.

Size matters

When using MLVs that must be reconstituted, only mix the amount you’ll use in one hour. “Producers or feedlot crews working a lot of cattle might use several bottles of vaccine at a time, but don’t mix them all up at once,” he says.

“Meanwhile, cow-calf producers who are working cows and palpating as well as vaccinating, while also maybe taking time to do some dehorning or other tasks, would be wise to buy vaccine in small bottles. That way, you can use up each one within that hour window. If it’s mixed too long, it can lose effectiveness,” Miesner adds.

In many situations, 10-dose vials are preferable to 50-dose vials. Though the larger size may be more economical, you won’t save money if the vaccine is compromised by the time you’re using the last portion of that big bottle. Even a killed product can eventually get too warm if it’s taken from the cooler periodically to refill the syringe.

If you know you’ll be out at the chute all day, use an insulated container with an ice pack, and take only the amount of vaccine you might use during the first few hours, Miesner says. When that runs out, get more from your refrigerator – and new ice packs.

“Discard any leftover doses; they won’t keep,” Chase says. “Killed vaccines may be good for another day if they were kept cool, but always try to buy bottle sizes you’ll be using up quickly. I’ve seen people buy clostridial vaccine for young calves in 50-dose bottles and take out just a few doses at a time. But the more times you puncture the lid, the more chance of contamination; soon, there’s such a big hole that vaccine may come running out,” Chase says.

When working cattle and giving more than one vaccine, make sure you don’t grab the wrong syringe when refilling.

“Color-code syringes with tape or label them,” Miesner says. “If you were to draw another kind of vaccine into the wrong syringe, it could inactivate that whole load or make it less effective.” Putting an MLV product into a syringe that previously held your eight-way clostridial killed vaccine, for instance, could inactivate the MLV.

“Even worse would be to grab a syringe you’d used for giving an antibiotic, and loading it with vaccine. Things sometimes get crazy when you’re in a hurry or distracted, and I’ve seen things like that happen. The sad thing is tht a person often doesn’t realize it until it’s too late,” he says.

Always read the label

Always read vaccine labels before use. “Look at expiration dates, injection dose, route of administration, and whether a booster is required. A company sometimes changes the dose volume – several vaccines have switched from 5 cc to 2 cc, for instance, and from intramuscular (IM) to subcutaneous (SubQ),” says Miesner.

To comply with Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program requirements in reducing tissue damage and reactions, the industry is moving to smaller doses and SubQ rather than IM administration.

“Though fewer vaccines are given IM today, always read the label to make sure. Recommended dosages can change, too, so double-check the recommendation and be sure to adjust your syringe for that dose,” he says.

Needles & syringes

While a dirty needle or syringe can contaminate or inactivate vaccine, never use disinfectants, advises Williams, Lemhi County Extension agent in Salmon, ID. Instead, use very hot tap water to clean your syringe gun. Take the gun apart as you clean it, and allow the parts to air-dry. Then store clean syringes in plastic bags, she says.

“Syringes should be cleaned and inspected before each use to ensure proper function and calibration for the vaccine you’ll be using,” adds Miesner. “When you put syringes back together, make sure they’re calibrated properly. When cleaning, squirt various set volumes of hot water into smaller syringes and check the accuracy of multi-dose syringes. Sometimes calibrations can be off, and adjustments need to be made.”

And keep checking syringes while you work cattle. “Sometimes, you finish and have an extra dose or two (or run out too soon) and wonder why. Make sure you’re actually giving a 2-cc dose, for instance. Some syringes may start leaking, and some plastic syringes may crack,” he says.

To minimize downtime, keep extra syringes and spare parts at the chute. “Most producers have done this long enough that they know what they might need, and can have it there at the chute in a tackle box,” Miesner says.

Sometimes, a syringe is sticking and people want to lubricate the plunger. “The best thing to lubricate it with is just the first vaccine you pull into it, rather than any foreign material,” Miesner says. Buy new rubber stoppers for older guns that start to stick.

“If you’re only vaccinating a few animals, it pays to use small, single-dose syringes,” Miesner says. “Measuring out 2 cc in a 10-dose syringe or even a 10-cc syringe is never as accurate. With the small syringe, you know you have accurate dosing, and can also use a new, sterile needle for each animal,” he says. This, he adds, eliminates the spread of blood-borne disease between animals, or the risks that can come from using a dirty needle.

Storage studies

In a University of Idaho statewide study, only 33.3% of the refrigerators used by 129 ranchers to store vaccine products were actually functioning properly 95% of the time. Many units were a little warmer or colder than ideal temperature, the study found.

The Idaho study also looked at vaccine storage at the retail level and found that only 34% of the 43 suppliers audited had refrigerators that were functioning properly 95% of the time.

Meanwhile, University of Arizona studies found more than 76% of the refrigerators tested (at ranches, veterinary clinics and retail outlets) were unacceptable for storing animal health products.


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