When margins get tight, it’s only logical to look for places in your budget to save money. And animal health is a line-item that often falls under the microscope.

However, be careful when searching for cost-cutting measures in this area, particularly when it comes to vaccines. Keep in mind, they are an investment in future herd health. Trying to attain short-term savings could result in higher expenses down the road.

 “I remember one herd that had a scours problem,” says Scott Poock, University of Missouri veterinarian. “We added a scours vaccine into their vaccination protocol. After several years of good results, the farm decided that it would try to save money by not vaccinating.” Unfortunately, the scours problem reoccurred and the farm quickly started to vaccinate again.

Here’s why you should remain vigilant with your vaccination program.

Performance cost

Obviously, you vaccinate animals for a variety of diseases, and at different stages of life, to improve animal health and increase economic returns. Vaccinations against E. coli mastitis provide a good example. But what is the performance cost or gain if you decide to use — or not use — this tool?

 According to research published in the October Journal of Dairy Science, cows vaccinated with a J5 bacterin produced 16.7 more pounds of milk per day in the 21 days following an incidence of clinical mastitis than cows that did not receive the vaccine. In addition, vaccinated cows lost 13.2 to 33 fewer pounds of milk per day in the 21 days following coliform clinical mastitis cases versus non-vaccinated cows.

 “A reduction in the loss of daily milk production following a case of clinical mastitis, whether for all cases or only those caused by coliform bacteria, is an important benefit of J5 vaccinations,” says study author David Wilson, a veterinarian at the University of Utah.

Every stage affected

You can find corresponding examples at virtually every stage of development.

Experts at Virginia Tech note that studies consistently demonstrate that calves with respiratory infections are almost twice as likely to leave the herd — and that can lead to higher replacement costs. As of Oct. 13, heifer calves brought as much as $700 in some areas. And springing heifers were as high as $2,325. It’s much cheaper to vaccinate heifers against respiratory diseases.

 And, you must consider the risks you incur in terms of lost productivity and performance. Research from The Netherlands, reported in the June 2002 Livestock Production Science journal, indicates that the body weight of heifers afflicted with bovine respiratory disease is reduced by about 22 pounds by three months of age and up to 63 pounds by the time the heifers are 14 months old.

The Dutch scientists also found that first lactation was delayed by a couple weeks for these animals. And first-lactation milk production was reduced by about 2 percent if heifers got pneumonia. If you expect first-lactation animals to produce 20,000 pounds of milk, that’s a 400-pound reduction. At $15 per hundredweight, the cost is $60 per animal.

There’s more

Infectious diseases, like bovine viral diarrhea, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, neospora, leptospirosis and others can also cause abortions, which lead to serious economic ramifications. This is in addition to the immediate cost of the disease itself.

Abortions during early pregnancy result in extra days open at a cost of $2 to $5 per day, according to research from the University of California-Davis. A typical increase of 45 days open could cost you from $90 to $225. If 20 percent of a 200-cow herd aborts, the loss could climb to $4,500.

And, the extra days open result in longer calving intervals. If you increase calving intervals from 12 to 13 months, it may result in a loss of 2 to 5 percent of your herd’s potential calf production. Calving intervals greater than 14 months usually result in a loss of more than 10 percent of an average herd’s potential calf production.

Management counts, too

Finally, remember that while vaccines are a valuable tool in your herd-health arsenal, your management skill helps determine their effectiveness. Be sure to comply with label directions.

 Also, animal environment — cleanliness, dryness and ventilation — as well as colostrum management, biosecurity, general hygiene and proper nutrition must be in order to enhance immune function and cattle health.

Be sure to consult with your veterinarian. Make sure that you’ve got the basics covered and your vaccination protocol fits your situation and management style. Most of the challenges discussed have multiple causes and require a multifactorial approach.

In the beef industry, there is an economic analysis called Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA), says Poock. When SPA data are analyzed, there is a noticeable trend among the most profitable producers. And, the trend is that they do not cut cost on genetics and animal health. “I believe dairy producers should follow that example,” Poock adds.

See for yourself

Here’s one example of how you can correlate the use of a vaccine on your dairy to its long-term implications. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a spreadsheet to help evaluate whether you should vaccinate against E. coli mastitis. You can input your herd’s data to determine cost-effectiveness.

A majority of the time, preventing a single case of coliform mastitis makes vaccination cost-effective.

“For example, I had a client who milked 85 cows when I was in private practice,” says Scott Poock, University of Missouri veterinarian. “The owners reported that they had four cases of toxic mastitis in the previous year. Using the spreadsheet, vaccinating would return a profit if it prevented only one case of toxic mastitis. Research and clinical impression show that we would easily reduce the cases by 65 to 85 percent. Using those levels of reduction, the return on investment would be 436 percent or $19.19 per cow.

“If I remember correctly, there was only one time during all my years of practice that this vaccination did not prove profitable,” Poock says.

To access the tool, click here.

Where does the industry stand?

According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System’s Dairy 2007 report, approximately four out of five dairies (82.2 percent) vaccinate their cows for at least one disease.

To break that down further, 75 percent of dairies vaccinate against bovine viral diarrhea, 70 percent vaccinate against leptospirosis, 33.5 percent vaccinate against E. coli mastitis, 23 percent vaccinate against salmonella and 5.9 percent vaccinate against neospora. As you might expect, those percentages vary by region and herd size.

However, there has been a downward trend in dairies administering vaccines to heifers. In 1991, 91.3 percent of operations vaccinated heifers for a disease, compared to the 2007 figure of 83 percent.

 To see the full report, click here