Vaccines are essential tools to maintain herd health and prevent disease. The trick is to determine which vaccine or combination of vaccines will provide your animals with the best protection. It is critical that you choose the right vaccine to address the specific disease challenges on your operation.

The number of choices and amount of information to analyze prior to selecting a vaccine can be overwhelming. But it pays to ask questions and gain information from expert sources. Use this advice from Tom Wakefield, veterinarian and partner with Perry Veterinary Clinic in Perry, N.Y.;  Jan Gawthrop, veterinarian and calf grower from North Manchester, Ind., and Kent Henderson, veterinarian with Northwest Veterinary Associates in St. Albans, Vt., to make sure your protection plan is on the right path.

Scrutinize the research

Look at the research that’s available on a vaccine.

Ask companies for research performed in addition to what was used for USDA approval. Find out if there are field trials similar to the situation in which you’re going to use the vaccine.

For example, with bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) vaccines, look at the challenge virus strains used in the research trial. Be aware that there are different strains of BVD, and the USDA does not have a set strain that they require manufacturers to test against. How does the strain used in the research trial compare to your herd?

Determine if the challenge was with one virus strain or with multiple strains. Research done with multiple strains is more indicative of real-life situations. Vaccines challenged with multiple strains are especially important when vaccinating against respiratory disease or pinkeye, as they are more representative of real-world situations, notes Wakefield.

Check on boosters

Ask if the vaccine requires a booster.

If you are unable to administer the additional injection because of management limitations, you may want to choose a product that does not require a follow-up injection, says Henderson.

Examine the route of administration

Determine how to properly administer the product for best results. In general, subcutaneous injection delivers more antigen to the immune system than via the intramuscular route and does less damage to meat-quality, notes Henderson.

Safety first

Make sure the product is safe for the age of animal you want to vaccinate. Look over the safety trials to see how rigorous they were.

Study the data and see if there are any side-effects, such as a drop in milk production or abortion. Look for the research trials that measure this information.

Question whether or not a product is known to cause skin lesions.

Run interference

Be aware that some vaccines can interfere with diagnostic tests. Talk to the product manufacturer and a diagnostic laboratory to see if there any concerns in this area.

Endotoxin levels are important

Know the level of endotoxins in the vaccine. Stacking vaccines with high endotoxin levels can have serious negative side-effects, including death of the animal.


Make sure the product manufacturer can provide a constant supply of the vaccine. “It doesn’t do you any good to start using a vaccine only to learn that it is back-ordered,” says Henderson.

Ask around

Keep in touch with other dairy producers and your veterinarian to compare notes and anecdotal information on how vaccines are performing in different herds.

Vaccines aren’t tested on every type of operation, on every age or breed of animal. Therefore, it’s important to rely on the experience of your herd veterinarian when choosing and developing a vaccination protocol, says Gawthrop.