An Ounce of Prevention


As a farmer, it’s hard to not draw comparisons between our animals’ veterinary care and our family’s medical care. We take our kids to well-child visits and keep up with their vaccinations, and we practice prevenative care with our cows, too. Last week was full of opportunities to do just that. On Wednesday we took a group of heifers to the vet for vaccinations and dry-treated a group of cows (which includes vaccines), and Thursday we had a newborn to vaccinate as well. Just like our kids (and ourselves), the cows and calves receive vaccinations throughout their lives to help keep them healthy. Protocols vary farm to farm, like most things, but I thought I’d share ours to give you a glimpse of preventative medicine on a dairy farm.

Newborn Vaccinations

Calves on our farm receive three vaccines at birth. No, we don’t start stabbing newborns with needles. Two are oral and one is nasal. They don’t necessarily love it, but it’s a lot better than contracting something potentially fatal. Unlike human infants, calves are born essentially without immune systems. Colostrum from their mothers in the first hours after they’re born helps provide them some immunity, and the vaccines bolster this further. Our newborn vaccines offer protection for a variety of common bacteria and viruses most of which cause respiratory symptoms or scours that can be fatal and/or affect the calves health and growth.

Heifer Vaccinations

There is one cattle vaccine (Calfhood Brucellosis) that in KS can only be administered by a veterinarian. Every three or four months we take a group of 10-12 calves for a 20-minute trailer ride to our vet for this vaccination. After he’s given the vaccine, he tattoos the calf’s ear and puts in a metal vaccination tag with a matching number, and then he reports those numbers with their birth dates to the state. While we’re there, he gives each calf a handful of other age-appropriate vaccines and a de-wormer, and checks them for extra teats (which can be easily removed at this age, but will cause problems when they calve).

Our vet tatooing a heifer’s ear following a Calfhood vaccination.

Dry Cow Vaccinations

Before a cow has a calf, we stop milking her for a couple of months to let her mammary system regenerate while she instead expends her energy finishing growing her calf. At this time, we give her an antibiotic to prevent an infection in her udder and we give her two combination vaccines. These combination vaccines each cover a handful of illnesses, and they provide some protection for both her and her calf. They are a booster for the cows’ immune system, but as mentioned, the calf doesn’t get much of an immune system in-utero, so maybe most-importantly these vaccines improve the quality of colostrum the cow will produce, and the calf will get the benefit of the immunoglobulins produced when we feed it that colostrum after it’s born, in addition to the newborn vaccines mentioned above.

Dry Cows (after vaccination) in the pasture.

Vaccinations are a notable cost, but I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I haven’t found an exception to this mantra. Costs associated with illness include antibiotics, veterinary care, lost milk and even death. These costs are not only more significant, but they’re always unexpected and inconvenient. Prevention, including vaccinations, is something we can budget and plan for. From a business perspective, thorough vaccination helps us minimize our risk, and from a human perspective, we never want to see an animal suffer from something that we can easily prevent with a vaccine. In case it needs to be mentioned, I’ll add: we of course coordinate and review our vaccination protocols with our veterinarian, just like we follow our pediatrician’s advice for vaccinating our kids.

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