When it comes to dry cow vaccinations, I like to think of them as a two-for-one. You’re vaccinating for the health of the cow, but you’re also providing passive immunity for the calf during those first few months of life.

Tikofsky linda
DVM / Boehringer Ingelheim

A calf’s first few days lay the groundwork for a lifetime of health and productivity, and vaccination during its dam’s dry period can help make sure the calf gets started on the right foot.

Importance of colostrum quality

Failure of passive transfer, when a calf doesn’t receive enough high-quality colostral antibodies, has both short- and long-term impacts. Immediately, that calf does not have protection against the common viral and bacterial infections that are in its environment. Calves with failure of passive transfer are also more likely to develop scours or pneumonia, and are at greater risk of death.

Unlike human children who receive antibodies through the placenta, calves are born naïve. They receive no antibodies while in utero, which means all of their antibodies must come through the colostrum given after they are born.

A study was conducted where researchers vaccinated cows at dry-off and measured antibody level changes in those cows as well as antibody level changes in their colostrum. A significant increase was found in the antibody levels in the colostrum of vaccinated dams to common dairy diseases compared with those cows that were not vaccinated at dry-off.


By boosting the dam’s immune system through vaccination, we also boost the antibody levels in colostrum, which in turn get passed onto the calf to give the calf protection early in its life.

To ensure the calf gets the maximum number of antibodies from the colostrum, it is recommended to collect the colostrum from the dam as soon as possible after calving. As the hours pass after calving, the cow’s colostrum can be diluted with regular milk, which can lower the concentration of antibodies per volume in colostrum.

It’s also important to feed the colostrum quickly. My goal is to always get at least 4 quarts of colostrum into the calf within the first four hours of its life for maximum effect.

Dry cow vaccination protocols

As the cow enters the dry period, she has 45 to 60 days to prepare for her next lactation. Once the cow enters the fresh period, which is often a time of stress, it can challenge their immune system, leaving them susceptible to disease.

By vaccinating cows during the dry period against some of the common disease challenges they may face, they’re more likely to enter their next lactation period with a robust immune response to fight off common infections.

A lactating cow vaccination protocol should begin at least 30 days prior to breeding. At this time, it’s recommended to vaccinate with a modified-live virus (MLV) vaccine. This helps stimulate the immune system while also providing protection against bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV) for both the dam and the calf. Vaccinating pre-breeding is a key step in preventing BVDV persistently infected calves. It is advisable to incorporate a leptospirosis vaccination at one of the pregnancy checks to prevent late-term abortions.

At dry-off, it’s recommended to incorporate a killed virus vaccine into your protocol. Some veterinarians also recommend an additional leptospirosis vaccination at that time. Producers should also incorporate a clostridial vaccine. Clostridial spores thrive on dairy operations, and without vaccination, problems with blackleg or malignant edema may arise.

Lastly, ensure you include a vaccine to protect against E. coli mastitis in the first 100 days of lactation. If scours has been an issue on your dairy, consider vaccinating cows with a scours vaccine to make sure the calf also receives those antibodies in the colostrum.

Remember to keep it simple

One of the best things for dairy cows is to keep your protocols as simple as possible. The less variation there is in vaccination protocols, the more likely they are to be completed properly, ensuring your animals are protected. However, it takes more than vaccination.

While the health of the calf starts at conception, the last 60 days are considered the most crucial for its development. During that time, proper nutrition, ensuring cow comfort and reducing stress will help you have a much healthier cow and calf.

Review your vaccination and cow and calf health protocols with your veterinarian every year to ensure they are up-to-date and you’re covered for the challenges specific to your environment.  end mark

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Linda Tikofsky
  • Linda Tikofsky

  • Senior Associate Director of Dairy Professional Veterinary Services
  • Boehringer Ingelheim
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PHOTO: Calves do not receive antibodies while in utero, which means all of their antibodies must come through colostrum given after they are born. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.