Calf feeding on cow
Updated: September 2, 2021
By Racheal Slattery

Weaning Tips and Vaccination Programs for Beef Calves


Weaning is one of the most stressful times for calves, and it doesn’t help that it’s also the most common time to give vaccinations. No one wants to work their cattle more than necessary.

The WHEN of weaning

Generally, 6-8 months of age; though calves can be weaned as young as 3 months. As long as your cows have good body condition and you have ample feed, there is really no reason to wean early. In Maryland, the majority of farms wean in the fall:  September through early November.

The HOW of weaning

There are 3 methods of weaning commonly used in the beef industry. Each method has pros and cons, the key is finding the best one that suits your farming operation and the cattle market in your region.


The WHY of Vaccines

In the beef industry, we operate on tight margins and while $3-10 per animal (depending on the vaccination program you choose) may seem like a lot, especially when you factor in the labor of catching your cattle and running them through the chute, it’s really not. Especially when a sick animal happens – and it will. The amount of time and money it will take to save that animal, not including the total loss if they don’t make it, will be exponentially larger. Vaccinating animals are a requirement of many cattle programs, including USDA Certified Organic, as well as many extra premium programs at livestock sale barns. An ounce of prevention will beat a pound of cure every time.

Total Separation
  • Sell right off the cow
  • Less feed reserves necessary as not feeding weaned calves
  • Don’t need space area/buildings on the farm to hold weaned calves separate from cows
  • No bawling calves
  • Very stressful for calves and potentially cows
  • Higher incidence of illness in calves 
  • Calves are considered “Unweaned” and bring a lower sale price
  • Less stress on calves
  • Nose-to-Nose contact 
  • Weaned in a familiar surrounding with familiar feed/water sources
  • Potential premium for “Preconditioned calves” at sale
  • Requires additional pasture/drylot space to isolate calves from cows
  • Bawling Calves
  • Requires more feed to condition calves in drylot/pasture setting
  • Less stress on calves
  • Cows and calves stay together during weaning transition – no additional pasture/drylot space needed 
  • Weaned in a familiar environment
  • Potential premium for “Preconditioned calves” at sale
  • Have to work calves multiple times to put in and later remove nose weaner rings
  • Expense of nose weaner rings ($3-$8 each)
  • 64-98% retention rate – some calves will lose theirs delaying weaning

The WHAT and WHEN of Vaccination Programs

IBR-BVD-PI3-BRSV-Lepto 5 Way (Infectious Bovine Rhino-tracheitis, Bovine Viral Diarrhea, Parainfluenza-3, Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus, 5 Strains of Leptospirosis)
  • 1st 2-4 weeks pre-weaning
  • 2nd Dose at weaning
Clostridial 7 way (Blackleg, Malignant Edema, Enterotoxemia types B, C, and D)
  • 3-4 months of age–vaccinating as newborns can decrease efficacy because of conflict with maternal antibodies in colostrum.
Mannheimia haemolytica (Bacteria responsible for Shipping Fever Pneumonia which usually follows infection of a respiratory virus)
  • 2-4 weeks pre-weaning
  • 2nd dose should be given to calves vaccinated at less than 6 months
Histophilus somni (Bacteria that can cause respiratory, nervous system, and reproductive diseases)
  • 2-4 weeks pre-weaning
IBK (Infectious Bovine Keratoconjunctivitis or Pinkeye)
  • 3-4 months of age

*Commonly recommended. Always consult with your veterinarian about what you should be vaccinating for based on area you live in and pathogen risks that may exist such as Anaplasmosis, Anthrax, Brucellosis, etc.

** Immune response to vaccines aren’t immediate and they are can be found lacking when used on unhealthy or stressed calves, particularly during weaning. Vaccines efficiency is highest when they are used 2-4 weeks PRIOR to weaning when the calf is still with mom in a familiar environment.

Modified Live Vaccine (MLV) 
  • Most are one-dose, though some boosters may be required
  • Typically fast, strong and long-lasting immunity
  • Less chance of allergic reaction and post-vac lumps
  • Lower cost
  • Can be used safely on weaned calves, replacement heifers, and open cows
  • Can cause reproductive issues if MLV hasn’t been used on cow herd in last 12mos
  • Must be mixed correctly on-farm and used within 30 minutes – can’t be saved for later
Killed Vaccines and Toxoids (KV)
  • Available for all diseases/pathogens
  • No risk of live transmission between animals
  • Minimal reproductive risk
  • Can be used on all ages groups
  • No On-Farm Mixing. Longer storage and shelf-life
  • Higher chance of allergic reactions and post-vac lumps
  • Two doses required
  • Slower onset of and, potentially weaker, shorter-lasting immunity
  • Higher cost
Chemically Altered Vaccines (CAV) 
  • Less chance of allergic reaction and post-vac lumps
  • Minimal reproductive risk
  • Can be used on all ages groups
  • Two doses required
  • Must be mixed correctly on-farm and used within 30 minutes – can’t be saved for later
  • Slower onset of and, potentially weaker, shorter-lasting immunity than MLV
  • Higher cost than MLV

The HOW of vaccines

There are 3 types of vaccines commonly used in the beef industry. Each has pros and cons, the key is finding the best one that suits your farming operation. Again, always consult with your veterinarian when making decisions about vaccine use on your farm.

Pre-weaning, including following a vaccination program, is essential to help your calves make the transition that’s going to help determine not only their short-term health but their long-term health, growth performance potential and your economic viability. Make sure you’re keeping your cattle and farm on the right path forward.

Vaccination Program Resources

This article appears in August 2021, Edition 2, Cattles Tales Livestock Newsletter

Cattle Tales Livestock Newsletter, August 2021, Edition 2

Cattle Tales Livestock is a quarterly newsletter published by the University of Maryland Extension that focuses on bringing timely, relevant information to Maryland's livestock producers.  To subscribe to this newsletter, click the button below to enter your contact information.