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Heifer vaccination drives reproductive success

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Dairy basics - Calf and Heifer Raising

Finding ways to cut costs and promote efficiency in your dairy operation helps boost your bottom line. But nothing yields you more long-term profits than a healthy herd. And the only way to ensure this continued success is through proactive heifer health management.

Today’s profits are obviously coming from older cows in your milking string, so keeping them in peak health is important. But the future of your dairy depends on producing healthy heifers to replace your culled lactating cows. With a specific program that supports dairy heifer health and development, you’ll prepare your heifers for a highly productive role in your operation.

One of the most critical elements in a successful heifer health management program is an effective vaccination strategy. In fact, proper vaccination is just as important as nutrition in promoting heifer health. What you might not realize is that calves born to first-calf heifers are significantly more vulnerable to diseases than calves born to older cows. For instance, research has shown that the odds of a calf dying from scours are six times greater when it’s born to a first-calf heifer as compared to an adult cow.

Adult cows that have been vaccinated properly throughout their lives have higher antibody levels in the colostrum to pass on to the calf. Heifers, on the other hand, haven’t yet been exposed to antigen loads high enough to stimulate their immune systems, so the level of protective antibodies in a heifer’s colostrum isn’t nearly as high as an adult cow’s.

When to vaccinate for which diseases
There’s no one exact strategy to follow for vaccinating every heifer herd. Vaccination programs and administration timing need to be tailored to provide maximum protection for your specific herd, taking into account your geographic region, facilities and herd disease history. That’s why it’s important to consult your veterinarian to ensure vaccination protocols are best suited for your herd.

What follows is some basic information about the most common types of respiratory, reproductive and clostridial diseases, as well as recommended vaccination timing for heifers. Remember that this information only serves as a guide; consult your veterinarian for the protocols that will best serve your herd.

Respiratory diseases. Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) is a costly disease that causes reduced milk production and death loss. Vaccinating heifers for these diseases that contribute to BRD will significantly improve herd health and lower treatment costs.

Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR) is sometimes called “red nose” due to the lesions and inflammation of the muzzle and nostrils. IBR can cause serious cases of pneumonia when it is complicated by bacterial infection. It can also lead to abortion in pregnant heifers and cows.

Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD) virus is associated with BRD and several other disease syndromes, and is classified either as Type 1 or Type 2. Type 2 strains have been implicated in severe disease outbreaks where the animals show hemorrhagic symptoms and death loss approaches 100 percent.

Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus (BRSV) invades the cell lining of the trachea and lungs and is commonly found in BRD cases, alone or with other agents.

Parainfluenza Type 3 (PI3) virus alone causes only a mild respiratory disease, but it is frequently isolated with other pathogens in severe cases.

Reproductive diseases. Reproductive failure is the costliest health problem for dairies. Heifers are at an increased risk for reproductive disease, compared to mature cows. Fortunately, many of the reproductive diseases can be prevented with proper vaccination:

Vibriosis often destroys the embryo at its earliest stages, necessitating repeated breeding. Although artificial insemination has significantly reduced the incidence of vibriosis, the disease can be spread through a contaminated reproductive tract.

Leptospirosis is shed in the urine and/or bodily fluids of infected animals. Lepto hardjo-bovis is the most common cause of bovine leptospirosis in the U.S. and is frequently associated with reproductive losses, although an infected animal may not show clinical signs.

BHV-1 and BVD Type 1 and Type 2 are viruses that significantly affect reproductive performance, in addition to causing respiratory disease.

Clostridial diseases. There are several clostridial pathogens that can evolve into diseases that go by a variety of names such as Blackleg, red water, bloody gut, overeating disease, enterotoxemia and tetanus. One type in particular, Clostridium perfringens Type A, has emerged as an increasing threat that often occurs in clusters, affecting many animals within a single herd or geographic region.

Clostridium perfringens Type A is associated with hemorrhagic bowel syndrome (HBS) in mature cows, but can also be deadly in calves, and is commonly isolated in cases where abomasal ulcers and hemorrhage are found.

Vaccination timing. Use this schedule (Table 1) as a guide when consulting with your veterinarian. Remember to follow label directions on all vaccines.0410pd_scholz_table1

Follow all label directions, as some vaccinations must be repeated, while others are single administrations. Vaccinations should be repeated 45 days before breeding or at approximately 12 to 13 months of age. Vaccinations are then repeated at 18 months of age and 45 to 60 days prior to calving in order to achieve sufficient levels of antibodies in the colostrum for the calf. Make sure newborn calves are fed an adequate amount of colostrum within two hours of birth. A rule of thumb is to feed two quarts of colostrum at birth and two quarts again within the first 12 hours of life.

Once you’ve established a vaccination strategy for your heifers, check with your veterinarian to ensure that all the vaccines are safe, effective products that provide long-lasting protection against all major diseases. Vaccination, along with other health management protocols such as proper prenatal care and nutrition, will maximize the long-term value of dairy replacement heifers in your herd.  PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request by emailing This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Doug Scholz

Doug Scholz
Director of Veterinary Services
Novartis Animal Health
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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