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Vaccination: Can you Afford not to?

This is a guest post written by Karin Schmid, Beef Production Specialist with the Alberta Beef Producers.

Vaccinating your cattle is a lot like having car insurance – when you’ve been in an accident, you’re very glad you’ve got it. Similarly, if a vaccine-preventable disease shows up in your area, you will be very glad you vaccinated your herd.

No one vaccine program is perfect for all operations, but vaccination is a critical component of any herd health plan. Protocols must be matched to an operation’s specific needs. They are best developed in collaboration with your veterinarian, who will know which vaccines will provide the greatest benefit for your herd.

Sometimes you’ll hear arguments against vaccination like “it costs too much” or “the vaccines don’t work.” But the bottom line is, if you do not vaccinate, your herd’s ability to combat diseases such as blackleg, BVD, persistently infected BVD animals, and bacterial pneumonia will be reduced. This will lead to higher illness rates, death loss and treatment costs.

To better understand the cost of vaccination, Kathy Larson at the Western Beef Development Centre did an analysis (using 2010 numbers), and found the following:


Assuming that Bob vaccinates 100 cows, 100 calves, and 5 bulls for blackleg and BVD/PRSV/PI3/IBR, and calf vaccinations include pneumonia and are given in both spring and fall, and each shot costs $2.87, then the total cost of vaccinating his herd is $1575 per year.

His neighbor John, with the same size of herd, opts not to vaccinate, saving himself $1575/year in vaccine costs. He is lucky, and is outbreak/disease free for 5 years, which equals $7875 in avoided vaccine costs. But in year six, 20 calves die from blackleg. Using 2010 prices, those 550 lb calves would have brought in about $1.05/lb, and would have been worth $11,550. John would have covered his vaccination costs for all six years, and made an extra $2,100 if those calves hadn’t died.

Imagine if  there had been a disease outbreak every year that John didn’t vaccinate, or that John lost more than 20 calves that sixth year.  Not vaccinating is a pretty big gamble, especially when you’re talking about your livelihood.

But it’s not 2010. It is 2014 and 550 lb calves are now worth about $2.30/lb. Even when we account for increased vaccine costs with inflation it’s still a no brainer.

So what about those stories you’ve heard about vaccines just not working?  Vaccines trigger the animal’s natural immune response to protect from a disease before infection occurs by producing antibodies, so if an infection occurs, the immune system is already prepared to fight it off. While it is true that some animals have a better immune response than others, a fully vaccinated herd benefits from something fittingly called “herd immunity.” Having the whole herd vaccinated means that if a vaccine-preventable disease does enter the herd, its spread will be limited.

Cattle may also respond poorly to vaccinations if:

  • they are exposed to a different strain of the disease than the one vaccinated for,
  • if they are not getting adequate nutrition, or
  • if they are under stress.

While it may be convenient to vaccinate during branding, stressed cattle are expected to have a poorer immune response to vaccination. Consult with your veterinarian on the best timing for your particular vaccinations to maximize vaccine response as well as what works best for you in terms of labour.

Vaccines are also not created equal.  Reading and following the label is very important. A label claim that states “as an aid in the control of the disease” will not provide the same amount of protection as a label claim that states “as an aid in the prevention of disease” or “for the prevention of disease.”

Vaccines may also ‘fail’ if they are mishandled. Make sure you buy vaccine from a dealer who has demonstrated good storage and handling practices. Vaccines are quite sensitive to heat and light, so should be stored in a cool, dark place – ideally in a refrigerator. Freezing will ruin most vaccines. If processing a large number of animals, keep the vaccine in an insulated cooler and take out as needed. Modified live vaccines are especially fragile. When using a modified live vaccine, only reconstitute the amount of vaccine you will be using in the next 30-40 minutes.

While vaccination is a core component of an effective herd health program, and is an excellent insurance policy, they can’t prevent disease by themselves. Vaccination won’t overcome poor management or prevent diseases for which vaccines don’t exist. A comprehensive herd health program developed with your veterinarian is your best bet to avoid a wreck, which would be especially costly with the current record high prices.

Learn more

The Cost of Herd Health – Vaccination
Western Beef Development Centre

Vaccination Guidelines: ‘How to get the maximum benefit when vaccinating your beef cattle herd’

Broken Needles in Beef: Prevention and Responsibility
BCRC Blog | October 2, 2012

Video: Vaccination Tips for Your Cattle Herd: Beef Research School episode
BCRC Blog | August 21, 2013

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