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Do pneumonia vaccines ‘work’ in young calves?

Roy Williams Published on 25 April 2011

In the March 2010 issue of The Veterinary Clinics of North America Food Animal Practice journal, in the article “Control, Management and Prevention of Bovine Respiratory Disease in Dairy Calves and Cows,” authors Dr. Patrick Gorden and Dr. Paul Plummer of the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine reviewed vaccine and management programs for young calves.

Relying heavily on an article published in the same journal in 2008 by Dr. Chris Chase and coworkers at South Dakota State University, these authors write: “Effective vaccine programs for young dairy calves are difficult to develop because of the complex nature of the immature immune system and the complexities of management systems where calves live.”



In general, “traditional” vaccines are ineffective for young calves because colostrum immune system components received by the calf can interfere. Intranasal vaccines, however, aid development of immune system components on surfaces of respiratory linings (primarily in the nasal area). These vaccines offer a chance of reducing infectious organisms which may enter the calf’s body.

However, little can be done to boost the calf’s immune system response if the pathogen evades the barrier on the respiratory system linings. Thus, intranasal vaccines can be useful in young calves receiving adequate colostrum.

In his paper “Neonatal Immune Development in the Calf and Its Impact on Vaccine Response,” Dr. Chase notes the dangers of “overimmunization.” Repeated administration of vaccines to calves can result in permanent suppression of the immune system, leading to the calf being more likely to become sick than if it had not been given any vaccine at all.

He also notes the earliest age at which a calf’s immune system will respond positively to a vaccine varies by the type of vaccine and the pathogen. For example, a vaccine against Clostridial spp. is likely to be ineffective before six months old, while a vaccine against Salmonella spp. may cause a beneficial response at two weeks old.

In another example, Dr. Chase notes that bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV) vaccination before two months old and again at four to nine months old was not effective in preventing infection. He suggests an initial vaccination using modified live virus at two to three months and a second at four months may be the best plan for BVDV.


In contrast to calves that received adequate colostrum, calves that did not receive adequate colostrum and have low total blood protein levels may benefit from vaccinations at earlier ages. However, there are no specific guidelines for early vaccination in this circumstance, and concerns regarding long-term suppression of the immune system still apply.

Always consult with your veterinarian and nutritionist for specific recommendations for your operation. PD

—Excerpts from DCHA website:

This article was provided by the Dairy Calf & Heifer Association, and was written by Roy Williams, member of the DCHA Communications Committee.

PHOTO The earliest age at which a calf’s immune system will respond positively to a vaccine varies by the type of vaccine and the pathogen. Photo by PD staff.

Roy Williams
DCHA Communications Committee Member