Gerald Stokka DVM, MS, serves as Extension Veterinarian and Livestock Stewardship Specialist, North Dakota State University.
Gerald Stokka DVM, MS, serves as Extension Veterinarian and Livestock Stewardship Specialist, North Dakota State University.

Today’s economic and societal realities require that we, as veterinarians, need to adopt new approaches toward overall herd health, while adhering to time-tested principles of animal husbandry. Ongoing pressure to reduce antibiotic use in food animals will encourage more emphasis on prevention and overall health and well-being for cattle. Veterinarians have an opportunity to lead this transition. . At the same time though, economics prevent us from babying every calf, so we must integrate a variety of stewardship concepts into an overall system of health assurance. 

Well-designed vaccination protocols represent a critical first step, but we need to help our clients understand that achieving optimum health and productivity requires a broader health-assurance approach. That broader approach can support the success of vaccine protocols while improving production efficiency, assuring antibiotic stewardship and meeting consumer expectations for beef quality, food safety and animal welfare.

The majority of spring born calves in the northern plains are weaned on the truck or weaned at the ranch of origin.  Health results are usually mixed, most are excellent, some meet expectations and some disastrous.  Producers annually seek guidance from different sources as to recommendations regarding the latest and best vaccine protocol for their calf crop.  I compare this process to the purchase of health insurance policies for individuals and families.  Health Insurance coverage for citizens of the US refers to the payment of insurance premiums to allay a portion of the costs associated with the treatment of specific health conditions.  Health insurance does not promise good health, but simply reduces the risk of catastrophic financial losses due to medical expenses.

Unlike health insurance for people, cow calf producers don’t actually purchase an insurance policy to partially offset out of pocket expenses, instead good livestock stewards manage the herd to help assure good health.  While the purchase of insurance products in the form of preventive vaccines can reduce the risk of specific diseases that may pose a threat to the herd.  A complete health assurance promotes both health and productivity.

On average, the cost of health insurance, categorized as veterinary expense in IRS schedule F, can be in the range of 3% to 7% of the total annual cost of keeping a cow.  If the total cost associated with maintaining the cow is $600, then a 5% cost for health insurance/veterinary expense would be a $30 per head expense for every cow, bull, replacement heifer and calf produced.  The items considered to be out of pocket costs are the purchase cost of vaccines and the cost of administration.  Considering just vaccine costs associated with the cow ($2.50/cow) and calf and accounting for 2 doses to calves ($5.00 per calf),  given prior to weaning, plus vaccines for replacements ($2.50) and bulls ($2.50), the average individual cost for both cows, replacements, bulls and calves would be $12.50 on an annual basis. 

These numbers can vary widely depending on the risk of other diseases and conditions such as trichomonosis, anthrax, or calf scours.  Other non-health insurance expenses that account for the additional $17.50 include non-ultrasound pregnancy checking at approximately $3 per head, bull semen evaluations ($50 per bull at a ratio of 25 females per bull) at approximately $2 per cow.  In addition, deworming costs will be in the range of $5 per cow and $2.50 per calf and this may be administered annually or twice a year.  The return on investment (ROI) of products (vaccines) related to health insurance is difficult to quantify and most often cannot be calculated.  However, health insurance programs are enhanced when the objective for the herd is to focus on health assurance.  Health assurance refers to a promise or a pledge to manage for health and productivity.  A health assurance program is achieved by managing the herd specifically toward that goal. Four management areas should be focused on to formulate a health assurance plan on the ranch. 

1.       Genetic Selection for Health and Productivity

2.       Nutrition Management for Health and Productivity

3.       Stress Management for Health and Productivity

4.       Colostrum and Passive Transfer Management for Health and Productivity

Genetic Selection

Genetic selection in cow herds often centers on EPD’s associated with performance such as milk (Milk), weaning (WW), yearling (YW) and carcass weight (CW) or American Angus Association indexes such as $ Wean, $Beef, $Feedlot, and $Grid.  An operation promoting a health assurance program focuses on additional trait EPD’s associated with calving ease direct (CED), birth weight (BW), calving ease maternal (CEM), and indexes such as $EN (dollars energy) or ME (metabolizable energy) with the Red Angus Association, both indexes associated with feed costs of the cow herd. 

Good stewardship is to put selection pressure on traits that match the natural resources inherent on the ranch. Unlike crop production we do not employ fertilization practices to enhance forage production on native grass pastures, such that rainfall and stocking rate dictate production.  Crop residue, cover crops, stockpiled forages are other opportunities for utilizing ranch resources in certain regions.  In addition, livestock stewards focus on other heritable physical traits not represented by EPD’s such as udder and teat conformation and mothering ability.  These health assurance traits are associated with maximizing the transfer of immunity from cow to calf shortly after birth which is critical to calf health and expressing genetic potential.  

Selection of genetics to achieve high levels of maternal immunity and reproductive efficiency is critical for managing health and productivity.  This includes a goal of raising a calf every year for 12 to 14 years, zero calving difficulty due to birth weight and shape, adequate growth, adequate milk and sound conformation.

Data from Oklahoma State University beef specialist Dave Lalman shows the average peak milk in the OSU commercial cow herd in 1998 was 17.8 pounds. By 2015 that average increased to 30.9 pounds. Research has shown that selection for excessive milk in dams not only increases cow-maintenance (feed) requirements but also may dilute the concentration of IgG in the dam’s colostrum.

Dairy producers now have access to a selection index for wellness traits.  This molecular genetic test combines ratings for mastitis, metritis, displaced abomasum, ketosis, retained placenta and lameness. Over time, we will incorporate more genomic-based rankings for wellness traits into beef selection. Meanwhile, research results have indicated crossbreeding could improve resistance to certain diseases in dairy calves, resulting in decreased input costs to producers for crossbred calves compared with purebred calves.  

Overall, we need to prioritize economic reproductive traits related to fertility and forage use efficiency. A good rule of thumb, from Dave Lalman at OSU, is to purchase bulls out of cows from herds that are managed like yours or worse, and have never missed a calf and calve early.

Nutrition Management

Nutrition management for health focuses on providing the nutrient requirements for the cow during the different seasons of the year and to match the stage of production of the cow.  Maintaining adequate body condition scores near 5 and meeting protein, mineral and trace mineral requirements during gestation appears critical to lifetime productivity of cow and her progeny.  Critical periods when supplementation may be needed include dry weather when pasture forage is limited and mature, when both protein and energy may be needed, or when body condition score is less than ideal prior to calving. 

A North Dakota and Nebraska research trial demonstrated that supplementing cows with protein during late gestation did not affect birth weight of calves. However, heifers from protein-supplemented cows were heavier at weaning and maintained this advantage through the beginning of the breeding season. Those heifers also tended to have higher pregnancy rates (93% versus 80%), had a higher percentage calve in the first 21 days (77% versus 49%), and had a higher proportion of unassisted births (69% versus 38%).

This management area is important to development of the gestating calf, the expression of genetic potential and to the formation of high quality colostrum.

Stress reduction

Managing stress for health assurance focuses on lowering cow and calf stress at birth, which means calving ease, and calving during the season of the year when environmental stress is minimized.  Calving during more favorable weather normally would allow for more space for calving which reduces the chance for exposure to potential pathogens.  Colder and wetter environmental conditions in winter and early spring in the northern plains and heat stress in summer calving herds can contribute to calves taking more time to stand and nurse and reduce the absorption of immunity from colostrum. 

Stress from handling must also be addressed, as this stress may result in offspring with less ability to deal effectively with stress. Several studies have demonstrated the relationship between stress and calf health. Exposing cows to repeated transportation stress during gestation, for example, altered their calf’s physiological response to stress. Calves born to cows exposed to heat stress during the last six weeks of gestation and fed their dams' colostrum have compromised passive and cell-mediated immunity compared with calves born to cows cooled during heat stress, suggesting heat stress negatively affects the ability of the calf to acquire passive immunity, regardless of colostrum source.

Colostrum Quality and Quantity

All of the above health assurance management areas are related to the production and quality of colostrum produced by the dam and relate to the calves ability to nurse and absorb immunity and nutrients found in colostrum.  If newborn calves are at risk of even a partial failure of this transfer of immunity, then replacement colostrum products should be administered as soon as possible after birth.

In dairy research, calves fed four liters of colostrum at birth produced an average of 550 kg more actual milk per cow over the first two lactations than those receiving two liters of colostrum. The direct economic return to the producer was approximately $160 per cow in additional milk produced over two lactations.


Vaccination – the insurance part of the stewardship equation – can be fairly simple.  To assist with vaccination protocols, three areas need consideration. 

1.       Is vaccination necessary?  Is there a risk to the herd of a specific pathogen or pathogens.

2.       Will vaccination when properly handled and administered be effective?  This must be based on science and experience.

3.       Is the vaccine safe?  Does the vaccine produce unintended local reactions or can it induce systemic reactions such as abortions. 

Research and experience suggest a good cow vaccination protocol should include the following, but each vaccine must be evaluated with the above considerations in mind:


–      Reproductive virus vaccination, two doses prior to first breeding

·         IBR, BVDV

·         BRSV and PI3 are included, but are not considered reproductive antigens

–      Reproductive bacterial vaccination, depending on herd history

·         Leptospirosis

·         Vibriosis (Campylobacter)

Research and experience suggest a basic calf vaccination protocol should include the following, but each vaccine must be evaluated with the above considerations in mind:


–      Respiratory virus vaccination, two doses prior to weaning.

•       IBR, BRSV, PI3, BVDV (MLV)

•       Coronavirus?

–      Respiratory bacterial vaccination, depending on environment and herd history.

•       Mannheimia hemolytica, Pasteurella multocida, Histophilus somni, Mycoplasma bovis.  This group requires careful consideration as 3 of these are gram negative vaccines and questions remain as to efficacy.

–      Clostridial vaccination, two doses prior to weaning.

•       Clostridium chauvoei, Cl. septicum, Cl. novyi, Cl. sordellii, and Cl. Perfringens types C and D

Health assurance needs to be the focus of livestock producers and requires attention to management in the areas of genetic selection, nutrition and reducing stress which enhances health and productivity.  It should be evident that producing healthy calves is more than just purchasing health insurance products.  Request from your veterinarian a collaborative meeting to build a written health assurance/insurance protocol for your operation.  Today’s livestock veterinary profession has been trained to provide more than just individual treatments and surgery, but also to be a consulting member of beef cattle operations.