Vaccinating spring-born calves can add up to 40p/kg to autumn sale prices, a price which covers the vaccination cost and provides a clear bonus, making it something suckled calf producers should consider.

For one producer, this step was made almost by accident. After an outbreak of pneumonia prompted vaccination, Dumfriesshire suckler producer Raymond MacKinnon realised there was strong demand from buyers wanting already vaccinated calves.

“We have been vaccinating now for eight years, but the popularity of ready-vaccinated calves has certainly grown in the last four years,” he adds.

Of the 600 Limousin x Friesian cows bred to Charolais bulls, 450 form the spring calving part of the herd, of which he sells about 350 calves in the first autumn.

“We vaccinate at the same time as worming and give them their second dose when heifers and steers are split, which means there is little or no added handling.

“Cost varies with the time you purchase the vaccine and we cost it at about £10 a calf, which is more than repaid,” he reckons. And considering October 2006 prices saw Mr MacKinnon’s calves average £1.73/kg against that day’s market average of £1.59/kg for steers and £1.34/kg for heifers, this is more than recouped on sale day.

“We have found that we have a large proportion of repeat buyers who realised the benefits of reducing or eradicating the post-weaning check and reduced instance of pneumonia the first time round.”

One of these finishers is John Letham of Coldstream. Of the 200 calves he buys every autumn, 60 are from Mr MacKinnon. “We have been buying from Raymond for two years now and it is certainly something we have seen a benefit from.”

Less trouble after housing and a greatly reduced, if not eradicated, instance of pneumonia means Mr Letham is more than willing to pay the extra.

“Calves start to thrive as soon as they are housed and the weaning check is nil. I’m willing to pay extra for Raymond’s calves as, at the back of my mind, there is the reassurance of a healthy calf which does not require two extra vaccinations.”

Calves are kept in batches after purchase and fed silage and barley in the first winter. Grazing their second summer, they come in to be finished on ad-lib barley, dark grains and yeast at 410-420kg deadweight at 24-26 months.

Improved profitability

Mr Letham supports the push for a greater number of suckler-producers to vaccinate calves.

“If it improves profitability, it is something we should all consider doing,” he believes.

There is huge scope for pre-sale vaccination, reckons John Roberts of United Auctions. Currently, there is only a small proportion of producers who vaccinate calves they plan to sell in the first autumn, he adds.

“Beef rearers are far more likely to vaccinate calves when they are finishing animals themselves, as they can see the direct benefits of the reduction in pneumonia and weaning check.”

But spring-born calves can be temperamental when it comes to pneumonia and reduced weight gain post-housing, and finishers would buy with more confidence if they knew they wouldn’t be stung with a check and high incidence of pneumonia after purchase.

“There is a large swing towards high-health status sales, particularly for bulls, and this needs to be carried on right down the line to calves,” he adds.

Buyers don’t really know the benefits until they have bought animals and are then keen to keep buying vaccinated calves, Mr Roberts explains.

“When finishers realise calves do not experience the weaning check and the incidence of pneumonia is, in most cases, zero they tend to only want to buy vaccinated stock.

“As more spring calves are sold due to increased feed prices, we need to provide buyers a healthier calf. Vaccination allows buyers a certain added value which they are willing to pay more for.”

Consistent approach

Pre-conditioning programmes like this have been around in the USA since the 1960s, according to Pfizer’s Scottish area vet manager for livestock, Mark Crawshaw.

“They never really took off in the UK, but in the USA in the last 10 years the percentage of calves sold vaccinated has increased from 4% to 25%, with clear base-price increases averaging 7%.”

What is needed is a consistent approach, which will allow producers to gain confidence to pay that higher price. There are several different options to fit vaccination into existing programmes, however, calves should complete the full course at least two weeks before being sold, he adds.

emily.padfield@rbi.co.uk