Custom vaccines – another tool in a rancher’s toolbox |

Custom vaccines – another tool in a rancher’s toolbox

Terryn Drieling, Freelance Contributor

While commercial vaccines address the most common ailments that cause problems for ranchers, sometimes a "custom" vaccine is helpful to target a specific strain of a less common virus or bacteria. Photo by Rachel Gabel.

With all that cattle are vaccinated for, occasionally viruses and bacteria for which there are no vaccines still rear their ugly heads. Enter custom, or autogenous, vaccines 

"In those cases where a rancher is seeing a disease that we've got no commercial vaccine for, having an autogenous vaccine made might be the way to go. There are a lot of good commercial vaccines on the market. But autogenous vaccines are another tool we can add to our toolbox," said Dr. William Baker, DVM of Hyannis Veterinary Service in Hyannis, Nebraska. 

How They're Made 

Custom vaccines are made by taking a culture swab from an infected animal(s). The swabs are then sent to a lab that specializes in making custom vaccines. There the isolates are extracted and cultured, or grown.  

After the growth period, the lab attenuates the isolates, or makes it so the pathogens won't cause disease, and adds adjuvants to help enhance the body's immune response to the newly created vaccine. All custom vaccines must also go through mandatory quality control testing before being shipped to the ranch.  

Depending on the pathogen and its growth rate, the process from culture to custom vaccine typically takes anywhere from four to six weeks for bacterins and eight to ten weeks for viral vaccines. Most custom vaccines have a shelf-life of 18 months from date of manufacture. However, the cultured isolates themselves can be good for up to two years with approval from the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA).  

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Risk vs. Reward 

An obvious risk with using a custom vaccine is having a custom vaccine made only to see no positive benefit or prevention of disease come from it. But as far as safety goes, custom vaccines are generally as safe as commercially produced vaccines. With any vaccine, commercial or custom, there is always a risk of cattle having an anaphylactic reaction to the vaccine. 

"The biggest benefit of autogenous vaccines is that they are specific to the disease-causing bugs on your ranch," said Baker. 

In addition to the potential cost savings on disease treatment and labor, custom vaccines offer the benefit of keeping preventative health programs up-to-date based on ranch-specific disease strains. Multiple isolates can also be developed to yield a unique vaccine combination.  

"We try to be proactive with our cattle herd with preventative care,” said Lynette Groezinger of Groezinger Land and Cattle, Elizabeth, Illinois. “At the time we decided to consider an autogenous vaccine, we were having persistent trouble with pinkeye and commercial vaccines didn't seem to be cutting it. Because of our herd size we were able to justify the added cost of making a custom vaccine. In the end, the move to autogenous vaccines has really paid off in our operation."   

Common Custom Vaccines 

"Here in our area the most common pathogens we see autogenous vaccines made to prevent are Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens Type A," said Baker. 

According to Newport Laboratories, the most common custom made vaccines are for diseases including Bibersteinia trehalosi, BVD Type 1b, Clostridium perfringens Type A, E. coli, Fusobacterium necrophorum, Histophilus somni, Mannheimia haemolytica, Mycoplasma bovis, pinkeye, and Salmonellosis. 

When to Go Custom & What to Keep in Mind 

"If you're seeing the same disease in your herd year after year and commercial vaccination doesn't seem to be preventing it, it may be time to consider a custom vaccine," said Baker. 

When considering whether or not to have a custom vaccine made, a working relationship and a good open line of communication with a veterinarian are a must. The veterinarian will help in the decision making process as well as setting up the appropriate lab to make the vaccine.  

"Some labs utilize different technologies than others. So you always want to be in contact with the lab to be sure they can create a vaccine for the specific disease you're dealing with," said Dr. Baker. 

Custom vaccines are generally intended for use in the herd that they were produced for, the herd from which the original isolates were collected. However, according to Newport Laboratories, the USDA does allow the use of custom vaccines in other herds "upon formal request and approval."  

"We have seen slow but sure benefit from using autogenous vaccines over the years. However, something to keep in mind is that they are not a quick fix or a cure-all. They work best in conjunction with, and not in place of, good best-practice animal husbandry," said Groezinger.