Disease prevention via a thorough vaccination program is the foundation of good health.

August 15, 2017

7 Min Read
Is your herd health protocol as good as everyone elses?
The cow-calf operation is the first stage of the beef supply chain, therefore it is critical to lay a solid health foundation through management and vaccination practices.

By Tracey Koester

It’s easy to find recommendations for cattle health protocols in a feedyard environment. The issue has been researched extensively and millions upon millions of hours of on-the-ground experience, some it hard-won, have contributed to a vast bank of knowledge.

And that makes sense. Feedyards are the narrow end of the funnel in the beef marketing chain, with each feedyard being the central point of congregation for cattle from hundreds of different farms and ranches. Animal health in that environment is crucial.

But what about ranches? While plenty of individual research is available to help beef producers and veterinarians develop herd health protocols, there was no published data that aggregated the combined millions of hours of on-the-ground experience captured by cow-calf veterinarians.

Until now. The Red Angus Association of America and Kansas State University teamed up to survey a large number of beef cow-calf veterinarians.

“We wanted to document some of the common health care practices recommended to cow-calf producers by veterinarians,” explains A.J. Tarpoff, assistant professor and beef Extension veterinarian at Kansas State University.

“Each cow-calf operation is unique in terms of size, number of head, terrain and climate, and that is why the veterinary-client-patient relationship is so important,” he says. “But, despite operations’ differences, the survey unveiled a nice trend of similar vaccination protocols that veterinarians are recommending to their clients.

Related:Is early weaning best for you?

Responding veterinarians hailed from 35 states and three Canadian provinces with a majority devoting 50% or more of their time to commercial cow-calf producers. Over two-thirds of the veterinarians’ practices represented 5,000 to 10,000 cows, with 39% servicing more than 10,000 cows through their clinics. In short, these are experienced health experts for cow-calf producers.

The survey’s findings identified immunization as the most important component of a healthy beef cattle herd to aid in the prevention of infectious diseases. Vaccinating cattle is a relatively common practice among cow-calf producers, and the survey validated what many ranchers already know. Disease prevention via a thorough vaccination program is the foundation of good health.

Even so, a portion of the beef cattle population remains unvaccinated, leaving those animals susceptible to multiple diseases and lost profit.

“Bovine respiratory disease is the most common – and costly – ailment in all stages of beef production,” says Tarpoff. “Feedlot cattle that break with pneumonia have decreased production and health, and it is the leading cause of death in feeder cattle.”

BRD alone costs the beef industry millions of dollars every year in treatment and death loss. Viruses commonly isolated from calves infected with BRD included IBR, BRSV, BVD and PI-3 – all of which can be controlled or mitigated through vaccination.

“BRD complex is multifactorial,” said Tarpoff. “We must do our best to reduce the stressors that contribute to sickness onset – like weaning, transportation, commingling and inclement weather. Through vaccination, we can boost and challenge a calf’s immune system to help protect him against bacterial and viral pathogens that result in illness.”

“Vaccines are not magic in a bottle. Regardless of the brand, producers must have realistic expectations of the product and diligently implement low-stress management practices for optimal results.”

Buying health

Veterinarians aren’t the only ones who endorse progressive approaches. When purchasing feeder or stocker cattle, Cody Cornwell, Cornwell Ranch, Glasgow, Mont., focuses on management practices that add value to a set of calves, such as a vaccination protocol, program-specific ear tags, fly control and weaning before shipping.

“The Red Angus tags – either Feeder Calf Certification Program or Allied Access – are a visual indicator of a rancher who is willing to take the extra step in their herd management,” says Cornwell. “It shows that they understand the importance of traceability and that they take complete ownership in raising that calf.”

Cornwell reinforced the findings of the veterinary health survey, recommending a modified-live vaccine with pasteurella administered on the ranch.

“Ranchers need to set themselves apart so buyers know their cattle are worth more,” he says. “That marketing distinction begins by vaccinating at branding and then boosting before weaning. Those that don’t follow a vaccination regime or that sell bawling calves will be left behind in the industry. Do everything you can to prepare that calf for the next chapter in his life.”

When to vaccinate

Tarpoff says the optimal time to vaccinate is before a disease challenge. Since weaning is a stressor, cattlemen should vaccinate three to four weeks before that event, then boost them when they are weaned.

Cornwell emphasized the importance of a lifetime vaccination protocol and weaning calves 45 to 60 days before shipping. “A lot of feedyards won’t receive bawling calves,” says Cornwell. “By weaning calves on the ranch, you have better control of your weighing conditions and timing of shipping, adding more value to your product.”

Veterinarians said the earliest age their clients should wean calves is 90 to 120 days, and they should administer the last preventative vaccination seven to 21 days before shipping.

“It is important to use the vaccines as they are intended. Administer them properly and at the correct time in the calf’s life,” says Cornwell. Calves should receive their first immunizations at branding time – between two and four months of age – when the maternal antibodies from colostrum run out and they start to develop their own immune system.

Calves are usually weaned at six to eight months of age, and it’s recommended to give preconditioning – or pre-weaning – shots three to four weeks before separating them from their dams.

“On-ranch vaccinations work every day for the rancher, adding value on shipping day,” he says. “Buyers and feeders recognize the value of a good health protocol, knowing the cattle will perform better in the lot. A calf’s health is progressive. Each step adds value until it reaches the consumer’s plate.”

Cornwell says it is essential that cattlemen know what vaccines they are giving and understand why each one is important. He recommended producers visit with their veterinarian or pharmaceutical representative to truly understand the purpose and functionality of the immunization.

He also emphasized proper handling of vaccination and implementing low-stress cattle handling techniques.

 “Proper management starts at birth. What’s done on the ranch begins the stepping stones for the animal to become a productive member of the cattle industry. Properly managed calves are healthier throughout all stages of the production cycle – they perform better with less inputs to maintain production levels. Healthy cattle simply have a much better flow through the system,” concludes Tarpoff.

Cow-calf producers should build a good working relationship with their veterinarian and follow his or her recommendations. Geographic and environmental concerns, nutritional requirements and special health needs all factor into an operation’s tailored health protocol. Pharmaceutical companies offer product that combines several vaccines into one dose, reducing the number of injection sites.

Most veterinarians – 80% surveyed in the study – recommend modified-live-virus (MLV) vaccinations at branding time to aid in disease prevention. That recommendation for MLV vaccines increased to 90% and 93% if calves were being vaccinated for the first time at preconditioning and weaning, respectively.

Vaccination Description

Clostridial – Multivalent Clostridium (blackleg, enterotoxemia, malignant edema, black disease, sordellii, tetanus)

M. haemolytica – Mannheimia haemolytica (bacterial pneumonia)

Pasteurella – Pasteurella multocida (bacterial pneumonia)

Sommus – Histophilus somni (pneumonia, arthritis, TEME)

IBR – Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis, Bovine Herpesvirus 1 (abortion, respiratory disease, conjunctivitis)

BRSV – Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus (respiratory disease)

PI-3 – Parainfluenza-3 Virus (respiratory disease)

BVD Type 1 & 2 – Bovine Viral Diarrhea (abortion, respiratory disease, diarrhea)

Bang’s – Brucellosis or Bang’s disease (abortion)

Vibrio/Lepto – Vibriosis/Leptospirosis (abortion)

Branding (2 to 4 months of age)

Clostridial – Viral Respiratory (IBR, BVD Types 1 & 2, BRSV, PI-3), Bacterial Respiratory (pasteurella, m. haemolytica, h. somni))

Preconditioning (3 to 4 weeks before weaning)

Clostridial – Viral Respiratory (IBR, BVD Types 1 & 2, BRSV, PI-3), Bacterial Respiratory (pasteurella, m. haemolytica, h. somni))

Weaning (6 to 8 months of age)

Clostridial – Viral Respiratory (IBR, BVD Types 1 & 2, BRSV, PI-3), Bacterial Respiratory (pasteurella, m. haemolytica, h. somni))

Brucellosis and Vibriosis/Leptospirosis for heifers


Koester is Red Angus Association of America editorial coordinator.

Subscribe to Our Newsletters
BEEF Magazine is the source for beef production, management and market news.

You May Also Like