Customize Vaccines

When a standard treatment isn't doing the job, it may be time to take a more targeted approach.

It can take six to 10 weeks to identify a pathogen and create a custom vaccine. (Progressive Farmer image by Claire Vath)

One size doesn't always fit all when it comes to vaccines in a cattle herd. That's one reason it's becoming more common to hear of cases where a custom vaccine, also known as an autogenous vaccine, is the answer to some ongoing health issues in a herd.

This is not a first-stop kind of solution. There's a process. It starts with a visit with your herd veterinarian, where you explain you're not getting the control you think you should when it comes to something like pink eye or scours. After doing some diagnostics, your veterinarian may agree it's time to consider an autogenous vaccine.

Veterinarian Ken McMillan, longtime writer of Progressive Farmer's "Ask the Vet" column, says he's used autogenous vaccines in his Cropwell, Alabama, practice to treat both warts and infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis (pink eye).

He explains, "The most common cause of pink eye in cattle is Moraxella bovis, but we are seeing more infections now caused by Moraxella bovoculi. Most commercial pink eye products, however, only contain Moraxella bovis, and even then, do not always protect against the specific strains causing the disease."

There is one commercially available product that contains Moraxella bovoculi but none that combine it with the more common Moraxella bovis.

McMillan adds his experience in the field has been that custom vaccines can be very effective when compared to commercial alternatives.


Randy Shirbroun agrees more cattle producers are seeking herd-specific products today.

A veterinarian with Newport Laboratories technical services, Shirbroun says in addition to pink eye, scours are a common reason for the use of autogenous vaccines. Being able to pinpoint the pathogen behind a hard-to-control health issue like this can be key to turning it around.

He stresses autogenous vaccines are not like buying a product off the shelf. They result from a process that begins with diagnostics, where the lab works with a veterinarian to test the strain, or variation, of a pathogen causing a health issue in a herd. Typically, this pathogen will be bacterial.

Shirbroun notes it can take six to 10 weeks to identify this pathogen and produce the autogenous vaccine. This includes quality control and USDA testing. USDA-licensed laboratories produce these vaccines.

Because of the time it takes to go through the process, Shirbroun says the idea is to make enough of the vaccine not just for the individual(s) with the issue today but for the whole herd next season.

"This is with the expectation that in all likelihood, the same pathogen is going to be in the same environment next calving season," he says of something like scours. "So, we want to vaccinate the cows prior to calving with this autogenous vaccine. This way, we can prevent the same issue in the next calf crop."

While producers often try to control issues like this by moving cattle into a new environment, Shirbroun says this approach generally has limited success.

"It may help to move to new pastures, but it won't eliminate these pathogens. They are in the cow's lower intestine, as well as in the environment," he explains. "So, yes, changing pastures is a smart management decision. But, you may still want to use an autogenous vaccine next season, especially if you're dealing with an unusual pathogen."


Anything custom-made is usually more costly, but Shirbroun says that isn't necessarily the case with autogenous vaccines. While it varies with the vaccine, these products are priced to the vet and are typically comparable to off-the-shelf standard vaccines.

Alabama's McMillan adds he'd like people to know that autogenous vaccines aren't just for cattle. In fact, they are regularly used in other species.

"The use of autogenous vaccines is common in swine and poultry. They are also frequently used in sheep and goats, because there are so few commercial products produced for them," he says. "The takeaway is that veterinarians today can go beyond that off-the-shelf vaccine and find ways to help farmers and ranchers control ongoing issues that are costing them money in loss or treatment. Communication is really the key."


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