Don’t Put Pre-Breeding Cattle Vaccinations on Autopilot


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Help protect calves from conception to weaning.

Pre-breeding vaccinations help protect herds from immediate losses and long-term consequences of disease. Developing a well-rounded vaccination program can help guard investments now and later. Thinking beyond the traditional five-way leptospirosis vaccines can help upgrade protection for the entire herd.

Vaccine timing

The timing of traditional vaccinations for vibriosis and leptospirosis can sometimes be mismatched with the disease threat, explained Jeff Sarchet, DVM, MPH, DACVPM, DABVP, Zoetis Beef Technical Services.

“We typically think about vaccinating cows and calves when we have the help to do it, but that may not necessarily be the best time,” Sarchet said. “In the case of vibrio, the reproductive impacts in the first three to four months of pregnancy make giving that vaccine pre-breeding much more important than say a disease like lepto that has impacts all the way through pregnancy.”

Sarchet also recommended considering the duration of immunity. Many leptospirosis vaccinations are given twice a year. The necessary protection may be gone if given at pregnancy

checks using a vaccine with a five- or six-month duration of immunity. Administering a vaccine with a 12-month duration of immunity helps ensure protection lasts throughout gestation.

Duration of immunity

Protecting against vibriosis and leptospirosis is important, but effectively protecting against the reproductive forms of bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV) types 1 and 2 and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) is just as important.

BVDV and IBR can have a long-term impact on the whole herd’s performance. Both BVDV and IBR can cause abortions, and fetuses exposed to BVDV within the first 140 days of gestation can become persistently infected (PI) calves. PI calves shed BVDV virus every day of their life, so a nursing PI calf poses a threat to infecting your next year’s calves during pregnancy.

A meta-analysis of 46 studies on BVDV vaccinations showed cattle vaccinated for BVDV experienced 46 percent less abortions and an 85% decrease in fetal infections compared to unvaccinated animals in the study.1

“On some large ranches, it can be difficult to gather the cows and vaccinate at the exact right time,” Sarchet said. “It’s important to find a vaccine with the longest duration of immunity and research indicating their level of protection lasts for at least 12 months. Think about how long the vaccine is proven to work, and then tailor that to when it’s possible to vaccinate cattle.”

Live or killed vaccines

The next decision is preference between modified-live virus (MLV) or killed vaccines. The advantage of a killed vaccine is safety. On the other hand, MLV vaccines can provide strong efficacy against disease.

“MLVs – especially the IBR MLV vaccines – can cause abortion in pregnant cows if she’s never been vaccinated or exposed,” Sarchet explained. “The timing is critical here. You want her open for the first vaccination. Once they’ve had it, then producers can give vaccines any time they want.”

Sarchet also recommends killed vaccines for cattle with an unknown vaccination history. Not every killed virus vaccine has reproductive protection, especially against IBR and BVDV, so he recommends reading the label indications.

Bull vaccinations

It’s important for bulls to be well vaccinated and healthy going into the breeding season. For example, BVD can infect the testicle and lower sperm production. Plus, bulls can spread respiratory disease to the cow herd, or get respiratory disease from the cows. Only some vaccines have a label indication for protection from BVD testicular infection.

“The main emphasis on working cattle is often ‘how can we get this done as fast as possible,’ and I’d like to encourage producers to think about how they can vaccinate cattle to provide the best protection possible for cattle, so they are as healthy and productive as possible,” Sarchet said. “I like to think of vaccines like insurance. Having the wrong policy, agent, or company can be very disappointing and costly but having the right insurance can be very assuring and beneficial.”

1 Newcomer BW, Walz PH, Givens MD, Wilson AE. Efficacy of bovine viral diarrhea virus vaccination to prevent reproductive disease: a meta-analysis. Theriogenology. 2015;83(3):360-365.e1.

Veterinarian prepare to give calf a vacinne
The advantage of a killed vaccine is safety. On the other hand, MLV vaccines can provide strong efficacy against disease.


Key Points:

  • Leptospirosis has five main strains: Leptospira canicola, L. grippotyphosa, L. hardjo, L. icterohaemorrhagiae and L. pomona.
  • The five most common strains of Leptospira can cause abortions, or pregnancy loss, or less commonly make animals sick with kidney disease.
  • Vibriosis (Campylobacter fetus) is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause infertility, irregular estrus cycles, delayed conception and occasionally abortion.


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