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Make vaccinations work for your cattle herd

When giving a shot, make sure it isn’t a shot in the dark

As ranchers begin another calving season and vets stock their shelves with vaccines and supplies, now is the time to review vaccination protocols and management practices to make sure the herd is protected.

Dr. Glen Griffin of South West Animal Health Centre in Swift Current, Sask., has been serving the southwest since 2004, when he and his wife, Dr. Christy Griffin, graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Their clinic serves clients within a 150-km radius, with herds ranging from 10 to 5,000 head of cattle.

The number of clients at the clinic has remained stable, and with fewer vets entering the workforce who are committing to long-term, full-time work, the clinic’s vets are always spread thin. Still, as trusted sources for information, the vets are ready to answer questions on vaccine protocols and best management practices to protect cattle herds.

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While some of his cow-calf producers follow a “bare bones” vaccine protocol, most are implementing recommendations for cows, bulls and calves that include modified live infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV) and parainfluenza-3 virus (PI3), clostridial and somnus. Most also use pain control at branding and parasite control in the fall.

Boosting vaccine efficacy

Vaccines work by stimulating a response of the animal’s immune system. Whether using a modified live or killed vaccine, proper timing and technique is critical for vaccine success. Healthy cattle in good condition have a better immune response to the vaccine. Provide good nutrition year-round, and handle animals in a low-stress manner for best results.

Griffin stresses the importance of proper nutrition for the herd.

“When cattle are receiving proper nutrition and minerals, they generally have a better response to the vaccines. There’s money to be saved and production to be gained by doing it right.”

Be sure to follow labels carefully when mixing modified live or other vaccines. Once reconstituted, modified live vaccines are only active for a couple of hours. Only mix as much as you can administer within that time frame. Never put unused portions back in the fridge. After a couple of hours, they are no longer effective. Temperature is important. Avoid setting vaccines in the sun or letting them get too cold. Use a cooler with ice or heat packs to keep vaccines at the right temperature. Make sure that syringes are clean and free of any other residue, such as antibiotics, which could inactivate the vaccine.

Modified live or killed virus

Injectable respiratory and reproductive vaccines are available as modified live (MLV) or killed viruses. Modified live vaccines create a strong immune response, provide long-lasting protection, have a shorter meat withdrawal period and often cost less money. They have to be reconstituted with a sterile solution and used within an hour of mixing. They can cause abortions in naive or unvaccinated cattle, so timing of administration is very important.

Griffin has seen abortion outbreaks in herds that don’t use an IBR or BVD vaccine, in herds where the vaccine was not administered properly and in cases where the vaccine history of the animals is uncertain.

Griffin recommends vaccinating cows in the spring after they have calved, and 30 days pre-breeding to avoid the temporary inflammation of the ovaries the IBR component can cause.

“It’s important to be sure of the vaccine history with modified live vaccines. If you give them to naive, pregnant cattle, they can cause cattle to abort. If you’re not confident, use a killed vaccine,” he says.

While the immune response may not be as rapid or strong, killed IBR and BVD vaccine can safely be used on open or pregnant cattle. While it may not provide the optimum response, some ranchers don’t want to run the cows through the chute in the spring at branding. Large operations with hundreds or thousands of cows often prefer to vaccinate cows at preg checking; a killed viral vaccine can offer more flexibility and less risk.

When purchasing bred cows or heifers, vaccine history may be uncertain. Using a killed vaccine will ensure that they have some level of protection without posing risks to the fetus. Several years ago, a producer consulted Griffin while experiencing an abortion wreck after purchasing bred heifers.

The seller had provided information that the heifers had been vaccinated with a modified live vaccine, though it was a different brand than the buyer used. The buyer wanted to boost the IBR/BVD vaccine to ensure that all the animals were protected. Weeks later, the heifers started to abort.

Griffin notes that in this case the producer could have used a killed IBR vaccine or the same brand of modified live viral vaccine that the heifers had previously been given, presuming that all animals had actually been vaccinated properly. The option with the lowest risk would have been to keep the new heifers separate from the rest of the herd, and then after calving, boost with a modified live IBR vaccine. This would have reduced risk of abortion and provided optimum protection during breeding season.

South West Animal Health Centre has hosted workshops on herd health, nutrition and vaccines, which Griffin says has given his clients an opportunity to ask questions and get first-hand information. He has seen increased uptake in vaccine programs. Pain control at branding and castration has also been widely adopted.

“I have not seen a ranch start, and then stop using it.”

Dr. Charlotte Williams, also a graduate of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, has operated her clinic in Elrose, Sask., since 1996. In the past few years she has co-ordinated many learning lunches where her clients grab a sandwich while hearing from vaccine representatives about new improvements to vaccines, new products and ways to better protect their herds. She estimates that up to 95 per cent of her clients are now on a herd health vaccine protocol.

Williams has a range of clients and herd sizes, and has seen success stories and wrecks with vaccine usage or non-usage in cattle. She has seen IBR outbreaks when introducing new animals into the herd, and suggests isolating any new cattle for two to three weeks. The largest loss she has seen was unvaccinated calves on pasture.

Producers using modified live IBR vaccines report better conception and less sickness. Williams suggests giving IBR at least 30 days pre-breeding. A well-rounded vaccine program assists with cow health, which generally translates into calf health.

“Healthy cow, healthy calf. No vaccine is 100 per cent efficacious, but if you use it when stress is minimized, you will get a better return on investment in vaccine purchases,” Williams says.

Changing our own vaccination program

My husband, Russ Carter, and I have noticed improved herd health after changing our vaccine program on our ranch near Lacadena, Sask. Over a decade ago, we were part of a business partnership with over 400 cows. Pregnant cattle were vaccinated in the fall at preg checking so they didn’t have to be handled in the spring during branding. Less attention was paid to keeping vaccines at the correct temperature, or using them within one hour. Larger bottles of modified live vaccine were often mixed and administered during the day as preg checking went on.

During branding in the spring, the same thing occurred with the calves. With many calves requiring treatment for pneumonia during the summer, or when they returned from community pastures, we questioned how effective the vaccines were.

When the partnership dissolved, we were running a smaller herd of 200 head and met with our vet to discuss how to achieve the optimum results and value from vaccines. We no longer administer IBR/BVD vaccines in the fall to pregnant cattle. With fewer cattle, vaccinating in spring after calving is manageable. While it requires some extra work and handling, it also gives us a chance to double-check body condition and note any other concerns when cows come through the chute.

We ensure that IBR/BVD modified live vaccines are mixed in small batches and administered within an hour, and kept at the correct temperature while processing cattle. Completing the Verified Beef program also helped to focus our attention on low-stress handling, and proper vaccine protocols.

Calves receive their shots at branding and replacements are boosted in the fall. We focus on providing consistent, high-quality nutrition to the herd, and pay more attention to the most effective timing and method of administering vaccines. We now have very few sick animals to treat during the summer, have higher conception rates and a lower cost of production. A few small steps can significantly improve herd health and margins.

Griffin and Williams both acknowledge that every operation is unique so vaccine protocols will vary accordingly. Disease pressure and pathogens can vary by region and due to factors such as commingling at community pastures. Producers must balance cost, labour and herd management to find the best vaccine program and timing for their herd. Having a veterinarian-client-patient relationship gives vets a solid understanding of each operation and assures clients that they have the best program for their needs.

When stocking up on supplies at the vet, have a quick review of vaccine protocols and discuss timing and administration to ensure best management practices. This can help you save money and increase production.

Tamara Carter ranches with her husband and children near Lacadena, Sask. Her interest in native pasture and other forages led her to the Saskatchewan Forage Council, which she currently chairs.

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