Buying vaccinated calves crucial for hitting winter growth targets

A pneumonia-free winter is critical to achieving target liveweight gains. Caroline Stocks looks at how one farmer changed his strategy.

Taking precautions against pneumonia before animals arrive on farm means producing consistently high-quality animals is no longer the challenge it used to be.

Lanarkshire farmer Andrew Russell, who runs a 70-head suckler unit in Carnworth, buys in 70 Charolais-cross heifer calves each year in the autumn.

In an effort to stop outbreaks of pneumonia on the farm, several years ago he decided to focus on buying as many calves as possible that had been vaccinated against respiratory disease to attain SureCalf certification.

The investment in SureCalf stock not only limits the risk of disease in his herd, but also ensures the calves are in a position to thrive and go on to be top-quality animals.


SureCalf is a free certification system that aims to reduce the impact of bovine respiratory diseases on farms.

Certified cattle can fetch a premium for sellers, while buyers know the animals they purchase are protected against illness.

“We were getting a few problems every year, and while they weren’t major problems, they were still costing us money,” Mr Russell says.

“I’d made some changes to the cattle housing by opening up the sides of the sheds to improve ventilation, which had helped, but we were still getting a few issues, so we decided to try SureCalf.”

Since buying vaccinated calves, Mr Russell says pneumonia outbreaks have reduced significantly on the farm, with the last serious outbreak of the disease occurring 10 years ago.

“We still get sick calves occasionally, but it is easier to handle,” he says. “Now I try to buy only SureCalf cattle as it makes sense for us in terms of the health and performance of the animals and our production costs.”

Mr Russell says his confidence in buying vaccinated calves was supported in 2012 when he bought eight unvaccinated calves that all went down with pneumonia two days later. Two of the animals died.

Even through the sick calves were isolated, they still infected 18 other unvaccinated calves, which all needed aggressive antibiotic treatment.

“It cost me at least £1,800 in direct losses and treatment costs, not to mention the added feed costs due to the animals taking three months longer than usual to reach their finishing weight,” he says.

In contrast, 45 SureCalf animals he bought at the same time remained healthy.

‘‘I pay a premium of about £40 a head for vaccinated cattle, but this is nothing in comparison with cost of treatment and the amount we lose if an animal goes down with pneumonia,” he says.

Vet tips

Ventilation and vaccination are key to ensuring beef cattle remain healthy over the winter months, says Andrew Russell’s vet, Kirstyn Reive of Armac Vets.

“On units like Andrew’s, one of the biggest issues is that calves are coming from more than one source, and they are stressed with moving from farm to farm via a market,” she says.

With different viruses and bacteria present in different herds, subjecting calves to new strains can lead to illness, making vaccination vital.

“SureCalf cattle are vaccinated before they go to market, any time after they are three months old,” Mrs Reive says.

As well as having properly ventilated sheds to ensure good airflow, Mrs Reive says housing calves in their own age groups is also important to minimise the 
risk of younger cattle being exposed to bacteria they are unable to fight off.

Month September October November December January April
Activity SureCalf heifers vaccinated (intranasal from nine days old) Buys in vaccinated, weaned heifers

Non-SureCalf heifers vaccinated with intranasal and kept separate

Houses animals depending on weather Vaccine protection runs out for SureCalf heifers – option for second dose if needed Vaccine protection runs out for non-SureCalf heifers – option for second dose if needed Animals turned out to grazing

Non-SureCalf animals join the herd

As well as saving costs in treatment, vaccinated animals also show a marked difference in liveweight gain.

Feeding the animals an ad-lib TMR of silage, straw, molasses and cake, the SureStart stock reach a target of 400-500kg before they are sold as stores four to six weeks earlier than those that are not vaccinated before they arrive on the farm.

“They also make things easier in terms of management too,” he adds. “We can just get them on the farm and we don’t have to handle them.

“It helps reduce stress for the animals, but it’s also less hassle for us because we know that everything’s done.”

Unvaccinated animals

With supplies of SureCalf animals sometimes limited, Mr Russell is often forced to buy unvaccinated cattle to fill his quota.

To reduce the risk of pneumonia spreading, non-SureCalf cattle are isolated and vaccinated intranasally as soon as they arrive on the farm in October.

“Once we’ve done that we keep them isolated from the SureCalf animals for the entire winter,” he says.

“We used to mix them, but we found that it created problems in spreading pneumonia, so we learned our lesson there.

“It’s extra work, but it’s worth it to protect the herd and get the best from the animals.”

Find out more about the main causes of pneumonia in calves, the role of poor housing and the best way to treat the disease with our dedicated academies.

Sponsor’s message


“Even smart farmers make mistakes, which they learn from and strive never to make again. But wise farmers learn from smart ones how to avoid their mistakes altogether.

The survey reported here last month predicts that about one in three pneumonia outbreaks this coming winter could occur on farms that have been pneumonia-free since 2010 or earlier. Designed for use by wise farmers, a new planning tool can help calculate the potential cost of a pneumonia outbreak, adjusted to your exact number of cattle.

This series is sponsored by Zoetis, makers of Rispoval®4 and Rispoval IntraNasal vaccines. For advice about a vaccination programme for your farm, please ask your vet.