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3 Tips to Help Vaccines Work

Vaccines can be a helpful tool in managing diseases in beef cattle, but they’re not a magic bullet. When an animal’s immune system is compromised, vaccines lose their opportunity to work.

“Regardless of what class of cattle you’re trying to prevent disease in, it’s important to set realistic expectations for the outcome of a vaccination program,” says Jeff Ondrak, beef cattle veterinarian at the University of Nebraska’s Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center. “A multitude of factors contribute to the response of an animal’s immune system to a vaccine. If you do everything right, you can see a good response.”

Building an effective vaccination program begins with a consultation with your veterinarian to determine which diseases are most threatening to your cattle.

For beef calves soon to be weaned, backgrounded, or sent to the feedlot, choose vaccines that provide a measure of protection against viral respiratory disease and other viral diseases.

Read labels to understand the level of disease protection you’re buying.

“Very few vaccines are labeled as preventing infection,” says Ondrak. “Most vaccines for respiratory disease, for instance, are labeled as aids in prevention and control of disease. You will still have some animals that get sick, but the vaccine will reduce the severity of the disease.”

3 key practices

1. Doing everything you can to help the vaccine do its work begins by choosing a time to vaccinate cattle when their immune systems are most likely to respond to the vaccine.

“Calves should be in the appropriate nutritional status and experiencing as little stress as possible so they can respond to the vaccine,” he says.

2. To minimize the impact of stress on calves’ response to vaccine, vaccinate two weeks before weaning or after they have recovered from the stress of weaning. Also, avoid vaccinating when calves are experiencing stress from handling, weather extremes, castration or dehorning, transportation, or commingling.

3. Follow label directions for mixing or handling the vaccines. When vaccines require mixing, mix only the amount you’ll use within the next hour.

“Always keep it cool, and when you take it out to the chute, keep it in a cooler so you can protect it from overheating and direct sunlight,” says Ondrak.

Injecting vaccines according to label instructions also determines their effectiveness. For vaccines labeled for subcutaneous injection, he recommends using a ¾-inch needle. A common practice is to tent the skin of the neck with one hand and inject with the other. Yet, this presents possible injury to the handler.

“With practice, you can insert the needle in the side of the neck at a 45° angle and still be underneath the skin without penetrating the muscle,” says Ondrak. “If the syringe is hard to depress, you’re depositing the vaccine between layers of skin, and it will be less effective.”

Intramuscular injections require at least a 1-inch needle. The optimal location is the injection triangle (in front of the shoulder blade and above the spinal column). The Beef Quality Assurance program has more information at

“Change needles every time you draw vaccine from a bottle,” says Ondrak. This prevents bacteria from old needles being inserted into the vaccine and, thus, injected into animals.

“The important thing to remember is that vaccines are not a cure-all,” he says. “Many factors contribute to disease prevention, including animal health, handling, and management practices that reduce exposure to pathogens. In preventing disease, focus on the whole management spectrum.” 

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Jeff Ondrak


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