Managing vaccinations key to raising healthy calves |

Managing vaccinations key to raising healthy calves

How the calves are handled on the ranch impacts feedlot performance.
Photo by Teresa Clark

When a senior consultant with Elanco Animal Health asked a group of ranchers how many of them knew how their calves performed once they left the ranch, only a few hands went up. Bruce Hoffman couldn’t hide his disappointment.

“What you do on the ranch is extremely important to how well calves survive in the feedlot. As an industry, we should care about how our calves do in the feedlot once they leave home. It is not so much about the products they were given, but the management of the calves and where they came from,” he said.

Elanco Animal Health keeps track of about 40 percent of the cattle on feed. What they have found is a trend toward feedlots spending more on health products. “Treatment costs are going up,” he said. “If we were successful, we should see death loss going down, and that is not the case.”

In fact, Hoffman said despite vast improvements in cattle genetics and health products over the last 20 years, feedlots still report death losses rising a tenth of a percent a year. Vaccinations continue to improve, but questions remain whether the ranchers handle it properly.

Are the calves raised in a non-stressful environment?

Several Montana veterinarians completed a survey about how they felt ranchers did in relation to calf health. One of the questions they responded to was: When pregnancy checking cows, were they proud of how the owners handled their cattle?

It was an opportunity for the veterinarians to point out concerns they had noticed, like crowding too many calves into the corral, poor cattle handling techniques, and the improper administration of vaccinations. The most alarming responses were from veterinarians who responded that they worked with some ranchers who were just looking for a piece of hide. “They didn’t care how they gave shots,” Hoffman said the veterinarians indicated of those ranchers. “They just wanted the vet slip filled out showing they gave them. I can tell you that cattle that are stressed like that don’t show as good of an immune response as non-stressed cattle.”

Management and environment work hand in hand. “If calves grow up in a non-stressful environment, they typically do really well,” Hoffman said. “When we work cattle, are we doing what is recommended? Labor is always an issue. Do you vaccinate calves when the kids are home from school or when the neighbors are available to help? When it is 108 degrees outside and dusty, do you decide to work calves anyway?”


Hoffman reminds ranchers to keep good records. “I would encourage all of you to keep records and review them year-to-year. Don’t make rash decisions during the years when you received 30 inches of snow at once, and then blame the vaccine. I would also encourage you to get help if you are having problems with the products. Don’t be afraid to get a veterinarian and a nutritionist involved. Find the experts — don’t try and be one,” Hoffman said.

Lifetime immunity is not based on whether the vaccination is a modified live or killed vaccine, but it is dependent on when it is used during the animal’s life, and what is happening in the animal’s life at that time or at that point of production, Hoffman said. “The key is how you work with vaccines and the veterinarian. If there are problems, you need to let the veterinarian know. They want to know. We want to know what the issues are with animal health because we all want to get better.” ❖

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at