Livestock Vaccination Safety and Basics

April 24, 2021

Vaccines can be lifesavers on the farm. They protect animals from diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and protozoans. These immune boosters stimulate the animal’s immune system to stimulate a biological defense against the invading organism.

Once activated, animals are primed to respond against these pathogens if exposed to the same organism. While vaccines are not a cure-all for disease, they can improve your livestock’s ability to fend off an infection or worse, death.

Vaccines are administered by injection, although some can be introduced orally or intranasally. They are approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for safety. For this reason, it is important to refer to the label directions for safe use.

Our livestock vaccination guide covers the difference between the different types of products, how to use them, how to read the label, when to use them, and all other important details to keeping your farm animal safe and healthy.

Veterinarian in pigsty

Types of Vaccines

Herd vaccines are critical for the health of your livestock. Vaccination programs developed with a veterinarian can do the following:

  • Reduce and eliminate the spread of disease in livestock
  • Protect newborns via colostrum
  • Protect unborn animals from diseases that can lead to abortion

There are different types of vaccines, each with different types of disease-causing organism. Each delivers antigens that can stimulate the body’s immune response and produce antibodies to protect the health of your livestock.

Vaccines are administered before being exposed to a pathogen to increase immunity against the spread and severity of the disease.

The two primary vaccine types include the following:

  • Modified Live: A modified live vaccine (MLV) introduces a modified live organism into the animal. It can trigger a mild response against it.
  • Killed: The dead pathogen triggers the immune system, but does not cause the disease.

Above all, make sure to read the label directions to ensure the drug you are using is applicable to the species. For instance, some drugs used for cattle are not effective and could cause issues with other livestock such as sheep and goats.

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Vaccination programs for the cattle industry vary depending on the region and risk of exposure.

For beef herds and dairy cattle, cattle vaccines are recommended for the following diseases:

  • Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis-Bovine Viral Diarrhea-Parainfluenza Virus 3 (IBR-BVD-PI3): The combination cattle vaccine protects against three main organisms. Calves are vaccinated twice before weaning and annually.
    • Infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), also known as “red nose,” is characterized by significant upper respiratory inflammation and reproductive issues.
    • PI3 leads to upper respiratory infection and secondary infections from other viruses and bacteria.
    • BVD weakens the immune system and can cause reproductive issues and infections caused by secondary pathogens.
  • Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus (BRSV): Bovine respiratory syncytial virus can cause disease in the lower respiratory tract and viral pneumonia as well as bacterial pneumonia. The vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus is recommended for cattle before weaning and annually.
  • Blackleg 7-way: The blackleg vaccine provides protection from Clostridium chauvoei, C. sordellii, C. perfringens Types C and D, and C. septicum. We recommend administering this vaccine before weaning and annually.
  • Leptospirosis: The leptospirosis vaccine is recommended before weaning and annually or more frequently depending on the risk of exposure.
  • Rotavirus/Bovine Coronavirus: Pre calving vaccination to cows and vaccinating calves at birth provides protection against calfhood diarrhea.
  • VIbriosis (Campylobacteriosis): Administer this vaccine annually in breeding cattle.
  • Brucellosis: This vaccine is administered by veterinarians only
  • Mannheimia haemolytica: Mannheimia haemolytica is usually a secondary infection caused by a weakened immune system or primary viral infection. M haemolytica has a unique leukotoxin that destroys white blood cells and causes significant inflammation in the lungs and “shipping fever.”
  • Moraxella bovis: For a strong defense against infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis (IBK),  pinkeye vaccines provide tremendous pinkeye protection, common in young cattle in dry environments.

Small Ruminants

For sheep and goats, the following diseases require vaccines for immunity protection:

  • Clostridium perfringens types C&D/tetanus: Clostridial organisms are mainly found in soil and live for a long time. We recommend giving lambs two vaccines at 5-6 weeks of age with a few weeks window in between shots.
  • Rabies: There are a few different types of rabies vaccines for sheep and goats. Rabies vaccines are usually given every year.



For swine vaccines, the following diseases require the right vaccines for the best swine herd immunity:

  • Erysipelas: Caused by the bacterium Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae, this disease is all-too-common in pig farms. Injections with killed bacterium are most common and can start at 6 ½ months of age with a booster a few weeks later.
  • Leptospirosis: Leptospirosis is mainly spread through pig urine but also contaminated water and feed. Vaccination against leptospirosis is similar to the program for erysipelas except young pigs are not vaccinated.
  • Parvovirus: Parvovirus is very common in pigs and can have severe complications. A vaccination program includes injection before breeding and boosters every six months or yearly.
  • Colibacillosis: Also known as Escherichia coli (E. coli) diarrhea, this disease is caused by the E. coli bacterium and tends to mainly affect baby pigs.  Injection of pregnant females twice several weeks before farrowing is common.


For equine vaccines, the following are identified as critical diseases to provide vaccines for proper immunity and health:

  • Eastern/Western/Venezuelan Equine Encephalomyelitis: These diseases are mainly transmitted by mosquitoes but also other insects. Vaccination is available as a killed product and is very effective.
  • Rabies: Rabies is not very common in equids but can be very severe. All equids should get a rabies vaccine annually.
  • Tetanus: Tetanus can be fatal. The Clostridium tetani bacteria is mainly present in soil and can contaminate open wounds. Adult horses should be vaccinated annually.
  • West Nile Virus: WNV is mainly transmitted by mosquitoes and can be fatal. Adult horses previously vaccinated should be vaccinated every year in the spring, before the beginning of the WNV season.

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Safe Handling of Vaccines

Buying high-quality vaccines from a reputable supplier is the first step toward ensuring the health of your livestock. In addition, make sure to follow these safe handling guidelines to keep your vaccine’s efficiency high.

  • Keep all vaccines in a refrigerated container immediately after purchase.
  • Maintain the container’s interior temperature between 36 and 42º F.
  • Do not allow the vaccine to freeze or be stored in direct sunlight.
  • Keep track of expiration dates regularly to ensure the product remains usable

MLVs are particularly more complex to handle. For instance, they must be properly mixed with sterile water in a separate vial, which will live for a certain period of time. Ideally, you will mix enough of the drug to be used in a matter of 30 to 45 minutes.

You may use a cooler or other cold storage containers to ensure it remains within the appropriate temperature ranges.

Warning: Do not mix different types of vaccines in a single syringe. Some farmers may claim this procedure can reduce the number of injections given but it could also reduce the efficacy of the vaccine depending on the compounds found in the vaccines.

Injection Basics


When administering vaccinations to your livestock, it is critical to read the label directions for the best injection method, withdrawal time, and right dosage. Generally, the products will be divided into these categories:

  • Intramuscular: Deep in the muscle
  • Subcutaneous: Under the skin
  • Intravenous: Through a vein
  • Intranasal: In the tissue of the nasal cavities

Intramuscular injections go deep in the muscle and can provide a quicker response to the drug but a higher risk for mild or severe reactions. In addition, it will leave a larger circumference of muscle that is slightly tougher than the non-injected site.

If you get a choice, choose to inject under the skin to reduce damage to the meat.

Intranasal injections provide fast absorption and response within a day or two.

Always follow label directions when administering a vaccine. On the label, you will find the volume (dose) of the drug measure in milliliters (ml) or cubic centimeters (cc).

Needle Size

When it comes to needles, it is important to determine the ideal length and gauge (diameter). Higher-numbered gauges refer to smaller sizes while lower-numbered gauges are meant for larger diameter sizes.

In addition, longer needles are generally used for intramuscular injections (1 ½”), while shorter needles (½” to 1”) are used for subcutaneous injections.

For cattle, we recommend an 18 gauge needle since it is not very bendable. Some farmers may choose 20 gauge for calves but they risk greater damage if they are broken inside since they can move around and be hard to find.

For older sheep and goats, we recommend a 18-20 gauge x 1” needle and 20 guage ¾” or ⅝” needles for younger ones.

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It is important to keep the needles and syringes properly sanitized to avoid infections.

Disinfectants are not the best option to clean needles and syringes since these can destroy the live organisms and render the vaccine useless. Follow the label directions for cleaning syringes.

Generally, you will have to rinse the syringe thoroughly with hot water and sterilize it with boiling water.

Method of Injection

Subcutaneous injections can be applied using the tenting technique where you pinch a fold of loose skin between your fingers and gently pull it back to form a skin tent where you can inject the drug. Afterward, you can pull the needle back and out.

However, people with more experience do not necessarily have to apply this technique and can inject parallel to the skin. Do not try this if you are not an expert since you can damage the tissue with this technique.

  • For cattle vaccines, experts recommend farmers apply the injection in the neck, on the front side, if possible.
  • For sheep and goats, armpits are an excellent injection site. In addition, you can give them shots in their flanks. Goats can get shots in their ears and under their tails. Generally, sheep and goats get subcutaneous injections.

Intranasal injections are reserved for cattle that need to be transported. It acts as an immunity booster to stress from the transit. Cattle may require additional vaccinations in a week or two.

These injections do not require much concentration for them to work. Generally, they are required in each nostril and will be more difficult to apply on the second one because the cattle are expecting it.


When vaccinating your livestock, it is important to keep them calm and restrained. If not, you may end up with broken needles that can harm the animal or injure yourself. Minimizing needle movement during vaccination reduces the risk of muscle damage and improves the efficacy of the vaccine.

Withdrawal Times

Withdrawal times refer to the time between the injection and the time animals are shipped to slaughter. Withdrawal times vary depending on the type of injection and the site of injection.  Withdrawal times can be 21 days or up to 60 days.


After injection, follow the label directions for proper disposal procedures. You can store the needles in a separate and labeled container and dispose of them when the container is full. Ask your veterinarian for information on proper disposal if you are unsure.


Revaccination, mainly used for MLVs, refers to administering additional shots in order to improve the span of protection across the herd. In some cases, not every animal responds well to the vaccination. For instance, a vaccine that leaves 10% of the herd without protection may require another vaccination to decrease the percentage of animals without protection to 1%.

Booster Vaccinations

Calves who have received a vaccine may require an additional booster vaccine a few weeks (usually between 3 to 6 weeks) after the first one. Generally, a label will indicate if a booster is required.

If the first vaccine was a killed vaccine, then a booster is required to provide superior protection. If the booster is not administered within the timeframe indicated, it could result in an unprotected animal and compromised health, even if the vaccine is given every year after that.


Always ensure you are keeping accurate records of animal vaccinations. Health records can help you keep track of important vaccination timelines.
For instance, younger animals may require booster shots within a few weeks after getting an injection.
In addition, you may need to account for withdrawal times in meat-producing animals.

Holistic Treatment for Livestock Health

Vaccinations should not be the only prevention tool to rely on for the health of your herd. They do not prevent exposure to the infectious organism.
To give your herd the best chance to fight off and develop resistance against disease, you must properly manage their immune system with the right type of nutrition.
In addition, a farm’s biosecurity should be optimal to reduce or eliminate the risk of disease from reaching your herd.

Find First-Aid + Disease Prevention Basics at Wilco

Shop Wilco farm stores for a complete line of vaccinations for your livestock. We have got all the first aid and disease prevention products you need to keep your animals healthy and happy, all made by veterinarian-approved manufacturers.
As always, consult your herd veterinarian to establish a vaccination protocol to maintain the health of your livestock.