Vaccinating calves for a respiratory disease rather than blanket treating with antibiotics, has saved money, time and improved calf welfare for a Yorkshire beef farmer.

Seeing the majority of your 120 suckler calves struck down with a respiratory disease, affecting feed intake and growth, was something Clive Rowland wasn’t prepared to witness for another year.

Mr Rowland was finding when calves were weaned in the autumn that it coincided with an outbreak of pneumonia six weeks later. And although deaths were rare, calves were never fully recovering from the outbreak after loosing condition, prolonging the finishing period up to eight weeks.

Farming on the Garrowby Estate, North Yorkshire, Mr Rowland had no major health problems in his herd of 120 Limousin cross spring calving suckler cows. But in 2005, after first signs of a respiratory problem in calves, a viral serology was conducted, testing negative for all viruses tested.

However, it was in 2006 that a major respiratory outbreak occurred in calves after weaning. Nasal swabs tested positive for Mannheimia haemolytica, a bacteria present naturally in the upper respiratory tract of most calves, only becoming a problem during times of stress when immune response is lower.

In 2006, all calves were blanket treated twice with antibiotics and NSAIDs, says Mr Rowland. “Weaning calves is a stressful time and having to treat already stressed, ill calves with antibiotics just added to the problem, with calves having to be dosed twice during that year to contain the problem,” he says.

“After the outbreak, it took time for calves to recover, often ending up with calves not growing properly and persistent poor doers. Last year was the first year calves were vaccinated and the difference has been astonishing,” he adds.

“By vaccinating calves four weeks before housing and giving the second dose of vaccine at housing, with weaning delayed by two weeks after the second dose, calf health has dramatically improved, with money, labour and time also being saved.”

And, since vaccination, only one calf has developed pneumonia. “Heifers are being turned out 50kg heavier after vaccination and entire male cattle have finished six to eight weeks earlier,” he says.

Finishing cattle earlier saves Mr Rowland £80/animal from saved feed and labour costs and by finishing on average 60 cattle, this equates to a saving of £4800 a year. And at a cost of £1100 for the vaccine, compared to £1600 for the antibiotics and NSAIDs, and taking into account the saving made by finishing earlier, vaccination is the most financially viable option.

Mr Rowland says the savings don’t take into account the considerable labour costs associated with the outbreak. “It used to take the best part of a day to treat all animals with antibiotics and it wasn’t a pleasant job treating sick animals.

“And by weaning two months later at eight months old, compared to six, and not vaccinating during a stressful period, calves have sailed through the winter without a growth check.

“This is the best decision we have ever made and I envisage 2008 will be the same, after we vaccinate next month. It is so rewarding to see calves going through without a check.”