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Vaccinations and Organic Cow Care

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

As the summer season draws to a close, consider how your animals have done out on pasture. As I’ve written, adult cows generally can withstand various environmental pressures that younger animals simply cannot. Younger animals don’t have the ability to adjust as well to brand new situations since their immune systems have not had pre­vious exposure to various challenges yet. This is where vaccinating for a disease that has repeatedly occurred on a farm may be beneficial. While vaccines will prepare an animal for future challenges, some farmers can rely on them too much and can conceal some root cause of disease in the animals’ environment. Additionally, vaccines won’t work well if the animals’ nutritional plane is deficient.


One thing to think about is animal concentration—what is the op­timal number of animals to have for a certain size of land or barn? That’s a real question. The beautiful stone barns of the southeastern Pennsylvania countryside were originally meant to house no more than probably fifteen cows, their young stock, a few horses, and a handful of pigs and chickens. Now they routinely house forty or more cows, some young stock, and a full team of horses. I think it only makes sense that when there is a high density of animals in one area, bugs and germs have an easier time setting up shop in the animals there. That’s why routine massive vaccination programs have become so common place in modern agriculture—because of the high concentration of animals in one location, whether it is a forty- to fifty-cow tie stall in a stone barn or a four hundred– to four thousand–cow free-stall system.

Remember that the animals’ environment and feed play a much bigger part in staying healthy than vaccines.

I am not strongly in favor of vaccination, nor am I opposed to vaccination— it all depends on factors within an individual farm. While vaccinating prevents disease, I think that it’s also a crutch that allows for an unnaturally high density of animals to be kept together. Vaccines certainly can prevent terrible diseases—thank God for the rabies vaccine. There have been no alternative forms of prevention for rabies.

Unvaccinated people or animals bitten by a rabid animal will die unless they get the antibody treatment in time.

On the other hand, some vaccines seem to be weak, evidenced by the need for one to two shots a year. One would think that a truly good vaccine would provide long-standing immunity, hopefully for many years. For example, the rabies vaccine in people is good for five to ten years, and in most small animals it’s good for three years. I’m definitely not in favor of excessive vaccination programs as it may confuse the immune system or possibly create a tolerance effect, which is when the body becomes accustomed to the injected material and no longer mounts a response.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It all comes down to priorities, ideals, and reality—not always an easy set of factors to balance in farming situations with multi-factorial causes to problems. But keep trying, it’ll be worth it in the long run.

To Vaccinate or Not?

Do we need to vaccinate if we are abiding by the “high-forage diet, fresh air, and dry bedding” rule? That depends on some factors.

The first thing to consider is what you want to vaccinate against. Is it the respiratory bugs mainly? It’s a common practice to do so. In some ways doing so admits that indoor living isn’t as good as the outdoors on pasture, right? I have come to realize that, truly, the best vaccination program is one that is based on fresh air, high-forage di­ets, and dry bedding—at least for respiratory health. Another impor­tant way to prevent respiratory problems in stabled animals is to put them outside every day for as long as possible. This allows them to breathe in fresh air every day. Remember that most dairy cattle breeds are from northern European climates and like temperatures between 20°F–50°F (-5°C–10°C). There is no need to keep them inside when it is 22ºF if the sun is shining, there is little wind, and the footing is not slippery. The absolute worst possible weather for cattle to be outside is when it’s raining and barely above freezing. They will lose body con­dition fast. If young stock are carrying an internal parasite burden, or if they have poor body condition due to insufficient feed and energy intake, they will likely break with pneumonia in such weather condi­tions. Young stock with such issues may also break with pneumonia when put inside, especially if the bedding becomes damp, there is a draft at ground level, and they are in a cinder block or wooden build­ing with no fresh air.

If this housing situation is unavoidable, then vaccinating with one of the intranasal vaccines (InForce 3) that protects against the typical respiratory viruses like BRSV, PI3, and IBR is best as it gives quick protection within a few days and will last a few months. I have always liked the idea of the intranasal vaccines if only because they mimic the real way respiratory germs typically gain entrance to the body— through the nose. Otherwise, buildings with excellent air movement just above the height of the animals but allowing no drafts at bedding level (such as curtain barns, hoop houses, or large super hutches) are great for keeping weaned animals and bred heifers in.

Alternatives to Vaccinating

Are there alternatives to vaccinating? Again, the best “alternative” to vaccinating is likely a solid framework promoting basic healthful living. Autogenous vaccines can also serve as a true alternative to com­mercial vaccines. Autogenous vaccines are vaccines made right from your own herd and are highly specific to whatever is challenging your herd in particular. I have seen it work very well in a herd continually challenged by Staphylococcus aureus mastitis. By vaccinating animals at six months of age and at a year old, first-calf heifers coming fresh with Staph. aureus have been reduced from an average of five to six out of ten down to zero to one out of ten freshen­ing. They are then vaccinated yearly about a month prior to the next calving. It took about three years for this beneficial effect to be seen. And that was with no other measures taken.

Homeopathic nosodes are sometimes used as alternatives. To what extent they are truly effective against hot challenges is open to speculation since only one real study, on kennel cough, has ever been done. Remember that anything will appear to work if there is no actual challenge. Maybe your feeding and housing practices are so good that they are the main factor preventing disease, not the homeopathic nosode. But maybe it’s both things working to­gether! The real proof is when a hot challenge occurs—a good example is animals being shipped, mingled with yours, and kept together in­doors during the winter. One thing for sure is that using homeopathic nosodes will not overload the immune system or create tolerance, as they don’t work in the same way vaccines do (animals exposed to nos­odes do not produce antibody titers). Nosodes are very safe to give, but truly effective protection is an open question. Real homeopaths will tell you that nosodes are to be used only during a disease outbreak, as they are derived from actual disease material. Homeopathy does not generally put forth preventives, other than the pillars of health that I often mention: sound nutrition, clean and dry bedding, fresh air, etc.

I do think vaccines can be abused and harm the immune system if given excessively. I don’t quite understand how we humans can get a tetanus shot that lasts for ten years or a rabies vaccine that lasts five to ten years, but almost all the animal vaccines have instructions for revaccinating annually. Can’t they improve the vaccines? To be sure, there are many alternative veterinary medicine friends of mine (small animal and equine vets) that take a blood sample to check the protec­tion level (titer) to see whether revaccination is necessary. Maybe that’s something farmers should consider before revaccinating as well?

What about not vaccinating at all? If everything has been fine and you have all the foundational pillars of health in place and you aren’t buying in animals and whoever visits your farm has sanitized boots, then it should be okay. Always remember this: keeping your animals in robust health by proper feeding, frequent exercise, allowing them to choose to go outdoors or stay inside, and clean and dry bed­ding is the first step in any immunization program.

Remember that the animals’ environment and feed play a much bigger part in staying healthy than vaccines. I’m not against vaccines, but the best “vaccine” for farm animals will always be fresh air, dry bed­ding, high-forage diets, and sunshine.

Source: Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care