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Are Your Over-Vaccinating Calves?

Jim Dickrell

There are five things more important to young calves’ health and well being than vaccinations.


That’s the somewhat surprising advice from a veterinarian, but research over the past few years backs up the statement, says Joe Armstrong, an Extension veterinarian with the University of Minnesota.


Those five things: Colostrum management, dam health and nutrition, calf nutrition, calf environment and calf stress. “All of these things affect calf health more than vaccines given to calves,” he says.


Research supports average dairy gain (ADG) as one way to measure success of calf management. Research also supports pre-weaning ADG as a significant factor for first-lactation and lifetime performance.


Research from Pennsylvania State University, done by Jud Heinrichs and colleagues, shows that calving delivery score is critical. Calves that are delivered unassisted will produce 625 pounds more milk in their first lactation than calves that require even an easy pull. Unassisted calves will produce 1,350 pounds of more milk than calves that require a hard pull, mechanical extraction or a C-section.


Similar research from Brad Heins, a University of Minnesota dairy specialist, shows the importance of ADG pre-weaning. Using crossbred cows in a pasture-based system, Heins shows that for every 1 pound of ADG in the preweaning period calves are expected to produce 544 pounds more milk in first lactation.


So well-grown, fully mature heifers are critical to delivering healthy calves. Use of calving ease-sires or sexed semen can also help. Also avoid body condition loss in second- and older-lactation cows, says Armstrong. Shoot for a body condition score of 2.75 to 3.0 all the time with no loss after calving. “The roller coaster ride [of BCS gain and loss] is what kills us,” he says.


At calving, ensure calves receive a gallon of high-quality colostrum within 4 hours of birth. Colostrum should have at least 50 mg/L of immunoglobins (IgGs) which correlates to a Brix refractometer reading of at least 22 to 23%. Calves should preferably receive another 2 quarts of colostrum at their next feeding.


Calves need to be offered one gallon of milk or milk replacer twice per day or three quarts three times per day starting on the second day of life, says Armstrong. “Calves can’t eat that much if it isn’t offered,” he says.


Feeding high quality colostrum and then ramping up feed intake will not only foster growth but help calves fight off illness. The Heinrichs research also shows that calves that are ill during the milk feeding phase are likely to produce less milk in first lactation. Each day ill before weaning was shown to be equivalent to about 125 pounds less milk.


Your goal is to achieve a doubling of calf’s body weight by weaning. To achieve that, calves need to gain about 1.5 pounds per day, says Armstrong. A Cornell University study shows that when calves gain 1.5 lb/day, they produce 1,100 more pounds of milk in first lactation than calves that gain just a half of pound per day.


Armstrong also urges dairy farmers and calf raisers to take individual calf weights, and not to rely on group or trailer-load averages. “You can’t see what you don’t measure,” he says.


SIDEBAR: So Where Do Vaccines fit?


The goal of any animal health program should be healthy animals, using as few vaccines in your herd as possible, says Joe Armstrong, a dairy Extension veterinarian with the University of Minnesota.


To do so, he urges producers to consult with their veterinarians on vaccine protocols to deal with specific disease conditions on your farm.


“Constantly look for ways to do less, spend less and still make the whole system better,” he says. “Really, this is about re-allocating resources (both time and money) to most efficient use.”


Armstrong is not an advocate of vaccines at birth or in early life because time and money would be better spent on colostrum management. “I don’t like injectable vaccines at 4 to 6 weeks of age because they take too much energy from the calf,” he says. An intranasal vaccine might be appropriate for calves 6 weeks of age, but do so based on your veterinarian’s advice.


Injectable vaccines at 4 to 5 months are typically more appropriate when they can better mount an immune response. Be sure to booster or revaccinate a month later to achieve optimal immunity.


A core respiratory regimen includes vaccinating for IBR, PI3, BRSV and BVDV Type I and II. A reproductive core regimen would include these five plus 4 strains of Lepto.

Armstrong also recommends always vaccinating for Black Leg.


Again, consult with your veterinarian for disease conditions both on your farm and in your local area. Be particularly vigilant if you are bringing replacement animals into your operation.


Vaccine handling is also critical to maintain efficacy. Make sure the refrigerator you are using to store vaccines is working properly. “Storing thousands of dollars of vaccine in a bad refrigerator is not a good idea,” Armstrong says.


“Most shop or milk house refrigerators started life in the house and when they stopped working correctly they are brought outside to store vaccines. If a refrigerator isn’t good enough for food, it might cause issues with your vaccines.”


Also make sure you fully understand the correct route and dose of vaccines you are giving. Again, work closely with your veterinarian to ensure you are giving vaccines properly, and that boosters or revaccinations are given within the correct time frame.


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