Vaccinations can play a valuable role in ensuring calf health in any season. That said, they should never be used as a way to overcome poor management.
“In general, vaccination is used too much and too often,” Chase said. “It’s used to make up for holes in management.”
Calf raisers can do a lot of good by sticking to the basics of calf care. That starts with good colostrum management. Be sure to deliver clean, high quality colostrum to the calf as quickly as possible. This ensures successful passive transfer of antibodies to the calf.
“Colostrum is the cheapest thing you can do that you have a fair amount of control over,” said Chase.
Sanitize hutches and pens between calves to limit the spread of pathogens. Look at ways to improve ventilation – especially in barns in the winter – to improve air quality and reduce risk for respiratory problems. Also remember that the calf’s immune system is energy dependent, so make sure the calf had adequate calories, protein vitamins and minerals to support all bodily functions.
With the basics in place, it’s time to look at your vaccination program. Chase said he recommends an intranasal vaccine for respiratory viruses – particularly bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV) – in the first few days of a calf’s life. Not only does this help the calf fight respiratory disease down the road, but it also “seems to jumpstart the calf’s immune system,” according to Chase. It’s important to note that intranasal vaccines act on the mucosal surface and not the blood serum. Thus, you likely won’t see antibody titers from the vaccine if you pull blood from the calf. That doesn’t mean it’s not working. In contrast, it’s probably working right where it should be – on the mucosal surface.
If you are seeing bacterial pneumonia in your herd, bacterial pneumonia vaccines can provide some immunity. According to Chase, bacterial pneumonia is often related to the environment and air quality. Look at what management changes you can make to address the challenge.
As Chase highlighted, the top two disease challenges in calves are respiratory and gastrointestinal (GI). Chase said the most effective way to prevent GI viruses in calves is through an effective dry cow vaccination program. He recommends vaccinating for rotavirus, coronavirus and E. coli earlier in the dry period. His personal preference is to use an inactivated vaccine versus a modified live vaccine. That’s because a cow’s immune system cannot distinguish whether a virus is from a vaccine or a field virus. In the case of a modified live vaccine, the immune system may fight off the vaccine before it has a chance to work. That’s not the case with an inactivated vaccine.
Another vaccine that raises a lot of questions among calf raisers is a bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) vaccine. Chase warns against vaccinating for BVD in the first two months of a calf’s life unless you know you absolutely need it. He’s seen that the calf’s white blood cells don’t fight pneumonia as well when the calf has been vaccinated for BVD. Chase recommends giving the immune system more time to develop before giving the BVD vaccine. However, if you know you have BVD-PI calves, then the vaccine may be the right choice.
Clostridial vaccines also bring up an interesting discussion. If you see Clostridium popping up in your calves, it’s generally within the first month of life. Clostridium can live in the environment – soil, wood panels, etc. – indefinitely because it is a spore-forming bacterium. The problem is that Clostridium may be inactive for one or two generations and then reappear. If you know you have Clostridium on your farm, Chase said it’s wise to include a clostridial vaccine in your calf program.
Stick to the basics
At the end of the day, calf health is dependent upon your entire calf program – not just vaccinations and treatments. Delivering high quality colostrum boosts the immune system and gets the calf off to a strong start. A clean environment then limits calves’ exposure to pathogens and helps keep them healthy while their immune systems develop. To allow for that development, provide adequate nutrition, including energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Mastering these areas first is key to an effective vaccination program. After that, well-chosen vaccines can certainly prove valuable in raising healthy calves to eventually join the milking herd.