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Preparing your cattle to stay healthy on Show Day

Show day is a big event for many of our Highland Breeders; and there is nothing that can cloud that day as effectively as having your pride and joy come down sick in the barn.

There are several things you as an owner can provide to your cattle to minimize the effects of stress and possible exposure to various disease pathogens.  All show cattle should be “up-to-date” on their respiratory vaccinations.  Respiratory disease is the most common contagious illness that your cattle are likely to encounter in a trip to the show ring and there are effective vaccines available.

The major Respiratory Pathogens include:

  • Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis is a very common respiratory virus that is easily contracted by a susceptible animal. It is the most common feedlot respiratory disease, and also the most common viral cause of abortion in cattle.  While high fever and upper respiratory signs predominate, IBR is also a common component of so-called “shipping fever” when combined with a bacterial or mycoplasma component.  This can lead to pneumonia and severely ill cattle.  While the virus itself will not be affected, antibiotics are often used to treat “rednose” due to the frequent complication of bacterial pneumonia seen with the disease.  IBR can also cause a form of pinkeye, again, not responsive to antibiotics and lacking the central corneal ulcer that is seen in classic pinkeye caused by the bacterial family of Moraxella.  Vaccination is quite effective in reducing symptoms and limiting illness caused by IBR, but needs to be given according to label directions and a minimum of 2 weeks prior to potential exposure.

  • Bovine Viral Diarrhea: this virus is probably one of the nastiest viruses your animals could pick up at a show, but will probably be the one that causes the individual animal the least obvious problem.  BVD is usually a mild respiratory and enteric pathogen, however it is a potent suppressor of the immune system, making your cattle more susceptible to more serious complications of shipping fever such as Mannheimia haemolytica, Pastuerella multocida and Hemophilus somnus.  BVD can also infect a fetus in utero: making it one of the most serious diseases of cattle in the USA.   Infected fetuses are either aborted or are born with a persistent viremia that their immune system fails to recognize as foreign.  These Persistently Infected (PI) cattle are a constant source of virus for all the cattle that come in contact with them. PI cattle are usually short lived and  may die suddenly with severe diarrhea called “mucosal disease.” There are various strains of BVD and some can cause much more severe illness in naïve animals, including signs unrelated to either diarrhea or the respiratory system.  Fortunately,effective vaccination is available that protects against all forms of the disease. Certain of the BVD vaccines will protect against abortion and the birth of PI cattle.

  • Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus is an under- appreciated cause of respiratory disease in calves and adult cattle.  It can be a component of shipping fever, along with a bacterial pathogen, but it also is the one respiratory virus that is capable of causing not only upper respiratory disease in the nose and throat, but primary viral pneumonia as well.  Because of its predilection to lung tissue it also predisposes to secondary bacterial pneumonia. BRSV is suspected of being responsible for over 60% of enzootic respiratory disease in dairy cattle worldwide, and over 70% of respiratory disease in beef cattle. Studies in the UK have shown that 70% of beef calves are exposed to natural BRSV by the time they are 9 months old.  Calves generally show the more dramatic signs of illness, including high fever, depression, cough and difficulty breathing, but adult cattle can also become severely ill.  During an outbreak, morbidity (animals showing signs of illness) will be in the 60% range, and while mortality is generally very low, it can go as high as 20% in certain outbreaks in a herd of naïve animals of all ages.Immunity from vaccination or actual disease is not particularly long lived.  Older cattle will have less severe signs of illness if they have been previously exposed to the virus, and BRSV can smolder in your herd; causing periodic illness outbreaks in susceptible animals.  It is believes to circulate among the adult cattle without signs of infection and periodically cause outbreaks in the calves. Active disease is more common in fall and winter in temperate climates. There are now MLV BRSV vaccines that appear to provide reasonable protection from active disease. However, immunity may be limited to 3-4 months.  Preventing exposure of naïve or unvaccinated cattle to the main cow herd can be helpful in a dairy situation, but is impossible in the beef herd.A new vaccine is now available through Pfizer that incorporates BRSV with IBR and PI3 in an intranasal product.  This can be given to very young calves (day old) to stimulate mucosal antibody production in the naso-pharynx. There is no interference from maternal antibodies absorbed from colostrum with the local immunity stimulated by intranasal products.  This is a near perfect vaccine to give to young calves going to shows with their dams.  It also can serve as a booster for adult cattle, but local immunity needs to be boostered every 3-4 months also.

  • Parainfluenza virus (PI3) is another often overlooked cattle respiratory pathogen.  It causes relatively minor upper respiratory disease in calves, but can initiate infection with more serious pathogens causing pneumonia.

  • Most pneumonia in cattle is caused by secondary bacterial infections on top of one or more viral components. Of these bacterial causes, Mannheimia haemolytica is the most significant. This bacterium produces a leukotoxin that contributes to severe, necrotizing inflammation of the lungs. Other common bacterial causes of pneumonia include Pasteurella multocida and Hemophilus somnus. These 3 bacteria are all common commensals (normal population of bacteria) found in healthy cattle.  Vaccines against bacterial diseases are as a general rule, less effective in producing immunity than viral vaccines.  They are also more prone to side effects as a direct result of the vaccine. The bacterial vaccines for pneumonia are estimated to offer about 60-70% effective protection against these diseases.  If you choose to vaccinate with products that incorporate the bacterial respiratory pathogens in an attempt to prevent shipping fever, you need to remember several things.   First, stress of any sort but particularly viral respiratory diseases predispose cattle to bacterial pneumonia from organisms commonly living in quiet harmony with the animal. It is imperative to reduce stress and vaccinate for the viral diseases before doing anything else.  Secondly, choose a vaccine that includes toxoid;  it is the leukotoxin produced by M. haemolytica that causes such extensive damage in sick cattle. Third: exercise caution in administration of multiple bacterial vaccines. (see below)


I prefer modified live vaccine as immune stimulation is usually superior using a live virus; MLV generally to not require a booster, due to actual reproduction in the animal once injected, mimicking active disease.  (Colostral antibodies may interfere with response to any vaccine if cattle are less than 6 months old when receiving the vaccination; if an initial MLVvaccine is given when a calf is less than 6 months old, it should be boostered after the calf is over 6 months of age.) However, live vaccines may be more immunosuppressive, and feedlot studies have show that calves vaccinated with MLV vaccines upon entering the feedlot have greater percentage of mortality if affected by shipping fever. It is important that any vaccine be given adequate time to be effective, generally a minimum of 2 weeks before maximum protection can be expected. Generally there are few drawbacks to vaccination other than taking care not to vaccinate pregnant cows with certain MLV vaccines (BVD and sometimes IBR), but if you are considering future embryo or semen sales out of the country, you should investigate international testing requirements.  Many countries require that donor animals have NO detectable titer to IBR on serum testing; this is virtually impossible in animals receiving vaccinations for it.

In companion animal medicine, (dogs and cats) there has been extensive research done in determining that the duration of viral vaccine protection is usually much longer than a year. No such studies have been performed for either bovine or equine vaccines. Immunity induced by bacterins (bacterial vaccines) is notoriously of much shorter duration than that derived from viral components.

I am not a believer in over-vaccination for respiratory disease:  reputable companies make rather good vaccine these days.  In cattle routinely exposed to possible respiratory viruses annual vaccination with a modified live virus vaccine should be adequate.  (Remember too, that exposure to actual disease will act as a booster in the vaccinated animal.) The exception to this rule would be BRSV.  Because immunity, even as a result of actual disease tends to be short lived, this would be a vaccine to repeat every 3-6 months on a show circuit.  It is available in a single product as well as in combination with IBR, BVD and PI3. It is also available in an intranasal combination with IBR and PI3.

In addition to proper vaccinations, there are a few other things you can do to prevent illness in your show cattle.

  • Make an effort to carry all your hay and grain with you to the show so that your cattle are eating the food they are accustomed to.  Hay is the less critical element; our cattle don’t receive much grain and I have never worried about a change in their diet from one type of hay to the next: it is all high fiber forage. We routinely alter our cattle’s feed at home from pure alfalfa hay or haylage, to grass or grass/alfalfa mix hay or haylage.  Other than the speed at which this variety will travel through their digestive tract (the higher the quality of feed, the faster it will move through the intestines) we have never encountered any health problems when varying the forage eaten by our cattle. That being said, if your cattle are not used to a variety of forage materials, a change in forage can certainly add to the stressful environment of the show ring, making your cattle more susceptible to other illnesses.


  • This is a whole different story if you are feeding grain.  The components of grain can be so variable, such as the amounts of easily digestible carbohydrates, that rapid changes can have devastating effects. Even the same ingredients, more finely ground than the norm, can produce primary bloat even in animals accustomed to heavy grain feeding.  Digestive upsets are very stressful for the cattle and for their owners. Maintaining the same grain components and time table for feeding is critical to keeping your show cattle healthy. If your grain has any additives like the ionophore antibiotics Rumensin or Bovatec sudden withdrawal under periods of stress could result in proliferation of coccidia in the intestines leading to bloody diarrhea.


  • Water is critical for maintaining heath in all animals, and every precaution should be taken to ensure that your cattle continue to drink, and drink well while on the show circuit.  Some people carry water from home, but this can be extremely impractical if not impossible if dealing with a full trailer of cattle and a 5-10 day trip. Flavoring agents can be added to water, such as molasses or Kool-aid or electrolyte powders.  These all aid in masking water that doesn’t taste good to your cattle.  In our travels, water is generally not an issue unless it is chlorinated; the smell gags me and it doesn’t surprise me that the cattle are reluctant to drink chlorinated water.  Although not immediately effective, filling water troughs the night before will allow most of the chlorine to dissipate and the water will become considerably more drinkable by morning. Another excellent option is the use of an RV type attachable carbon filter mounted on the water hose.  This will remove virtually all unpleasant tastes; these filters are readily available through Amazon or your local discount store.

  • If possible, do not share your water buckets with other cattle.  This is a great place for close nose-to nose contact between animals and could spread many of the respiratory viruses.

  • Care should be taken during transport of cattle as well.  Wintertime driving is relatively easy on cattle with a heavy hair coat acclimatized to cold weather; the biggest concern is providing adequate ventilation in winter weather.  We initially purchased vinyl inserts for our stock trailer to block airflow in cold weather and keep the cattle warm.  The first trip we took in cold weather resulted in sweaty, uncomfortable cattle and proved the stupidity of that purchase: the vinyl inserts were removed and have never been installed again.  It is wise, however, to carry extra feed for a day or two delay in case of being stranded in a blizzard.

  • Travel in hot weather is far more challenging.  High heat and humidity make for miserable traveling for any cattle, not just Highlands. Trailers should not be packed tight; if the cattle can travel with plenty of space around them they will have a chance to dissipate heat; and air flowing through the trailer will help keep things tolerable.  However, traffic backups can lead to extremely hot conditions inside the trailer. If the traveling has been hot and slow, don’t hesitate to pull over and find a water source to both offer water to drink and hose down overheated cattle. Many hotels and gas stations have outside water faucets; make sure you have easy access to the hose you use for bathing your cattle and put it to use while on the road. In summer months, it may be necessary to change travel plans to make use of cooler temperatures during evening and night hours. Heavily conditioned show cattle will have a particularly difficult time dissipating heat; as will very young calves.


While nothing will totally protect your cattle from illness when they travel to a show, there are certain procedures you can follow that will help to minimize the risk. Carefully planned vaccinations, care to not change your cattle’s diet, good tasting water and comfortable traveling conditions will hopefully add up to an uneventful show without unpleasant surprises.



My personal vaccine schedule:


I have killed cattle with vaccine reactions that I firmly believe where related to giving too many bacterial vaccines at one time.  Cattle do not handle gram negative bacterial vaccines (or diseases) very graciously.  Recent reports have suggested limiting injections of Gram negative bacterial products to no more than 2 at one time.  I personally make it a habit to NEVER administer more than ONE gram-negative bacterin at one time.


The bacterins routinely used in cattle that are comprised of gram-negative bacteria include Mannheimia and Pasteurella (usually combined in one vaccine for shipping fever), Hemophilus(TME-thrombotic meningoencephalitis and pneumonia), Campylobacter also called Vibrio (venereal disease),Salmonella (intestinal disease), E. coli (intestinal disease and mastitis), Brucella (Brucellosis or Bangs Disease), Moraxella (pinkeye) and Leptospira (Leptospirosis, very commonly included in a combination vaccine with the respiratory viruses).  Practically speaking this makes vaccination for the number of diseases routinely selected quite a bit more difficult, as vaccines should never be administered any closer than every 2-3 weeks.  (Give everything you have decided to administer on Day1, then booster everything no sooner than 2 weeks; 3 is better.)When I vaccinate calves at weaning, I administer a modified live virus IBR, BVD, PI3 BRSV combination product with leptospirosis (Bovishield Gold FP 5 L5 HB)and an injection of low volume 9 way Clostridium vaccine (Cavalry 9)(Clostridia is a gram positive bacteria and the vaccines are a combination of bacterin and toxoid.)  In 3 weeks I booster with the same.  If the calves are well past 6 months, they only need a single MLV vaccine of the respiratory diseases, but they always require a booster of the Leptospirosis vaccine).  Likewise, the Clostridial toxoids require a booster in most instances.  {You can find single dose Clostridial vaccines but they are large volume, highly adjuvanted, (contain products designed to make the vaccine more immunogenic and potent) and tend to produce substantial injection site lesions.} In my heifers, I administer a Brucellosis vaccination 3 weeks later. For newborn calves at high risk of exposure to BRSV, I would administer an intranasal BRSV product at 1-2 days of age.  The intranasal product can be given to any age animal, but research indicates that calves between 3-10 days of age may be unable to respond as well as calves older or younger than that.


  • Calves at high risk for BRSV infection including newborn calves less than 3 days old, and any unvaccinated calf travelling with its dam to a show or other event: Intranasal IBR/PI3/BRSV (Inforce3 Pfizer)

  • Calves 3 weeks prior to weaning: Ideally all calves would receive an initial vaccination 2-3 weeks prior to weaning;  this doesn’t always pan out from a scheduling standpoint at our place, but if I can do it, I use a killed BVD product in combination with IBR/PI3/BRSV than is labeled safe for pregnant cows and calves nursing pregnant cows. (CattleMaster Gold FP 5, Pfizer)  

  • Calves at weaning:  Injectable IBR/BVD/PI3/BRSV 5 way Leptospirosis including a newer vaccine of Lepto Hardjo (HB) (BovishieldGold FP 5 L5 HB ) Low dose, 9-way Clostridial vaccine that includes Tetanus (Cavalry 9, Merial)

  • Calves 3 weeks after weaning: Injectable IBR/BVD/PI3/BRSV 5 way Leptosirosis including a newer vaccine of Lepto Hardjo (HB) (BovishieldGold FP 5 L5 HB ) Low dose, 9-way Clostridial vaccine that includes Tetanus (Cavalry 9, Merck)

  • Heifer calves 6 weeks after weaning:  Brucellosis (must be administered by a veterinarian between the ages of 4-12 months, although actual state requirements vary slightly by age- Michigan requires it be given between 4-8 months of age.)


Cattle going to a show:

  • Mannheimia haemolyica bacterin/toxoid (One-Shot,  Pfizer) at least 2 weeks prior to travel. Booster yearly if necessary.

  • IBR/BVD/PI3/BRSV yearly after initial calf vaccinations. MLV if possible (use care with pregnant cattle; use according to label directions, killed vaccine may be necessary.)

  • BRSV {intranasal in combination with IBR and PI3 (Inforce3 Pfizer) or single antigen BRSV injectable vaccine (Bovishield BRSV, Pfizer)}given 2 weeks prior to travel, booster every 4-6 months as necessary for show circuit.

Leptospirosis: ordinarily not a concern for show cattle, but should be boostered yearly as a part of routine herd health; every 6 months in extremely high risk situations (confirmed Leptospirosis in herd for example.)

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