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Experts give advice for working heavy-bred cows in the winter

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Many producers with spring-calving herds will have babies hitting the ground in no time, and with calving season right around the corner, it is time to think about how to best keep calves healthy and alive.

Because colostrum is imperative to a calf’s health in the first few weeks of life, several experts remind producers vaccinating cows prior to calving can help build antibody levels in cows’ colostrum, which will then provide passive immunity to the newborn calf. 

“Calves are born with an immature immune system, and they don’t develop their own antibodies until weeks after they hit the ground. Colostrum antibodies are vital to preventing diseases, such as E. coli, coronavirus and rotavirus,” writes First Defense, a leading producer of cattle vaccine, on their website. “However, the quality of maternal colostrum can be comprised, leaving a newborn calf without adequate protection.”

The company further notes, “For decades, producers and veterinarians have used pre-calving scour vaccines with the hope the dam will impart antibodies into the colostrum to protect her calf.” 

Vaccination considerations

The main goal of pre-calving vaccinations is to maximize protection against the calf scours complex, which can become an incredibly costly issue on any operation. 

In a Jan. 4, 2016 article published in Drovers, experts explain scour vaccines must be delivered to a pregnant female at the correct dose and window of time in order for them to be effective in transmitting protection to the newborn calf. 

“Pre-calving vaccinations stimulate production of antibodies in the motherʼs body, which are then directed toward the mammary gland when she begins producing colostrum. Increased levels of antibodies targeted to scours organisms in the blood of the mother while she produces colostrum results in more of these specific antibodies in the colostrum,” the article reads. 

The article further notes these antibodies are then passively delivered to the calf through its first drink of colostrum, which should occur within the first 12 to 24 hours of life. 

In order to ensure the most effective transfer of antibodies, producers must administer vaccine at the proper time. Drovers notes pregnant females begin to form colostrum by pulling antibodies from the blood and storing them in mammary tissue three to five weeks before calving, and this process continues until birth. 

“Depending on the age of the female and type of product used, there are different requirements which need to be followed,” writes Drovers. “Heifers require an initial vaccination followed by a booster at least three weeks later, whereas cows that have been vaccinated in previous years only require an annual booster.”

Additionally, the article notes it is important to follow vaccine label instructions and consult with a local veterinarian when creating a pre-calving vaccination program for a specific operation.

Animal handling

When administering pre-calving scour vaccines to heavy-bred cows, experts advise producers take extra low-stress handling precautions to reduce the instance of potential abortion.

Although cattle generally handle cold weather better than hot weather, these vaccines are given during a period of time when there are still nasty winter weather conditions and frigid temperatures, which is another stressor producers need to consider. 

In a Sept. 10, 2014 Beef Magazine article written by Heather Smith Thomas, South Dakota State University Extension Veterinarian and Professor Dr. Russ Daly notes if cattle have been stressed by weather, such as a recent blizzard or cold temperatures, it may be best to postpone until a calmer day.

“We don’t want to be working cattle if there’s a huge cold front coming in. Even if producers scheduled help and a veterinarian on a certain day, they might want to reschedule if weather will be really bad,” agrees University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Dean and Director Charles Stoltenow.  

When conditions allow producers to work their cattle, Stoltenow says it is important to go slow so cattle and the crew don’t build up a sweat and subsequently chill when standing around. 

University of Idaho Extension Beef Specialist John Hall says this is also important to prevent cattle slipping and falling if conditions are icy. 

“A non-slip surface where cattle exit the chute is also important,” Hall shares. “Packed snow, ice or a slick concrete apron at the chute exit can lead to cattle spills.”

Hall suggests chopping or shoveling icy surfaces and applying sand or salt to add traction and help heavy-bred cattle keep their footing.

Daly encourages producers to pre-check their facilities to ensure chutes, gates and other moving parts are not frozen and are working properly.

Product handling

“Maintaining animal health products at the required temperature is imperative,” says Daly, who advises producers keep vaccines at refrigerator temperature when using them. He notes freezing will inactivate modified-live vaccines and create compounds in killed vaccines which can cause cattle to get sick. 

To avoid this, Daly suggests placing hot packs, rice bags or water bottles in the bottom of Styrofoam or hard-plastic coolers to keep vaccines, needles and syringes from freezing while also not getting too warm. 

On a warmer day, University of Idaho Lemhi County Extension Educator Shannon Williams says producers can simply keep vaccines in their pocket and hold syringes and needles under their coat to utilize body heat and keep the contents from getting too cold.

While keeping vaccine from freezing is crucial, Daly and Williams note it is also important to resist from getting them too warm.

“Never put vaccines on the pickup’s heater or defroster, as they may get too warm. It’s a fine line trying to keep it within the proper window of temperature,” Williams says

Daly adds, “Don’t expose vaccines to hot temperatures. This also applies to pour-on products and antibiotics. Start with something at proper temperature, and don’t let it freeze.

“When using pour-on dewormer or delousing products administered via tubing, it doesn’t take very cold temperatures to freeze the tube,” he continues. “It pays to find ways to keep those products insulated and keep the tubing heated while working cattle. It’s much better to keep things from freezing than trying to thaw them out.”

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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