Another Tool For Your Toolbox

By Gilda V. Bryant, Contributing Editor

When commercial vaccines don’t work for certain conditions, such as pinkeye, autogenous vaccines may help. These vaccines are created in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-approved labs with samples of microorganisms from a particular animal or herd. Lab technicians use those organisms to formulate a vaccine that protects a specific animal or herd.

Bruce Addison, DVM, CEO of Addison Labs, says it takes two weeks to fill the first order. To comply with USDA regulations, subsequent requests of the same vaccine take about 30 days. Addison says his lab has made autogenous vaccines for a python, a camel, horses and primates; however, most orders are for livestock. Pinkeye vaccine is most commonly requested, although autogenous vaccines also treat respiratory and enteric diseases.

USDA guidelines allow autogenous vaccine labs to accept specimens from university diagnostic labs or licensed veterinarians. Lab technicians isolate and identify organisms in samples.

“We’re here to help animals and follow the law, making sure we have a clean industry,” Addison explains. “We don’t want people getting junk vaccines that have no oversight. The veterinarian helps us make an accurate diagnosis, ensures that regulations are followed and educates the client to use the vaccine properly. It’s a team effort — producer, veterinarian and the laboratory.”

Addison reports that if operators have not tried a commercial vaccine first, they will probably waste time and money. Ranchers might solve their problem with a product that has already been government approved. He suggests producers read about autogenous vaccines, talk to their veterinarians or autogenous lab representatives to learn more about this alternative treatment. Addison believes his role is to help producers and veterinarians solve health issues for livestock.

“Animals carry pinkeye organisms in their upper respiratory tract,” Addison reveals. “In a closed herd, it’s doubtful that ‘bug’ will change much, if any. The vaccine the producer used will probably work again next year.”

However, cattle are new every year in a backgrounding operation. Addison recommends that if producers see any eye problems, they should send samples immediately. Pinkeye does not infect all animals at once. It travels through the herd in several months. The veterinarian will have time to intervene, protecting the bulk of those cattle.

“Certain organisms mutate often, such as Clostridium perfringens type A; a commercial product may not take care of it,” Addison concludes. “That’s when you turn to an autogenous service. There are licensed products on the market that [stay up-to-date on] new variants out in the field. When we use those and autogenous vaccines, we get good results.”

Lee Jones, DVM, professor at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, has recommended autogenous vaccines when he and his clients decide commercially available vaccines are ineffective.

Jones recommends developing and maintaining sound management strategies, including raising closed herds with proven biosecurity methods that reduce exposure to infection. Other practices including good nutrition, a comprehensive mineral program, and reduced stress with Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) handling techniques complete the program.

Like many veterinarians, Jones requests autogenous vaccines for pinkeye. This disease has multiple causes of eye irritation, which allows bacterial infections. Jones works with cow-calf, stocker and feedyard clients to determine if an autogenous product is the best choice, especially if animals have not benefited from commercial vaccines.

“We need to make sure we get a good sample collection,” Jones stresses. “If we have a problem, like pinkeye, we’ve got to collect diagnostic samples at the [first sign of symptoms]. If I use an autogenous vaccine, I must have live bacteria and live viruses. I’ve got to collect my samples without a lot of contamination so my pathogen stays alive. This ensures that when we get the diagnostic results, what they cultured is the culprit.

“Make sure the lab you’re using is able to identify the strain causing the problem. Labs use molecular diagnostic techniques, RNA sequencing procedures, genomics and pathogen identification tools that are far better than looking on a culture plate.”

Most autogenous labs ask operators to buy 1,000 or more doses, which works well for large producers but is pricey if an operator has only 50 head. He can store the vaccine, but it often has a shelf life of 8 to 12 months. If the veterinarian has a reasonable expectation that the disease-causing organism is also involved with a neighboring client, the neighbor’s herd may use the autogenous vaccine. In this scenario, several ranchers can split expenses.

“The rancher should work with a USDA-approved lab and a good veterinarian,” Jones advises. “Make sure your veterinarian understands the process. The lab is the best source of information on how to make an effective vaccine. When we follow those instructions to the letter, we will have our best chance to make a viable vaccine.

“Make sure your veterinarian collects and handles appropriate samples properly, so the organism isn’t damaged or killed. This increases the odds of a successful effort.”

David Rethorst, DVM, Beef Health Solutions in Wamego, Kan., also recommends autogenous vaccines to help manage pinkeye. He says Mannheimia, Pasteurella, Mycoplasma and Histophilus somni are normal inhabitants of the respiratory tract that may cause a variety of enteric and respiratory illnesses.

“We can culture those from perfectly healthy 3-day-old calves,” Rethorst reveals. “When I see problems with those bacteria, I look for what’s suppressing the immune system, whether that’s a trace mineral deficiency, mismanagement during the cow’s third trimester, or if we’re getting some fetal programming impact on the immune system.”

Rethorst says that if he has a pinkeye occurrence caused by Moraxella bovoculi and has not had success with commercial vaccines, he recommends an autogenous product to buy time as he stimulates the animals’ immunity. He also orders autogenous products for stocker operations because those animals can be highly stressed or mismanaged. Autogenous vaccines also have a role treating respiratory illness in light calves or weaned calves in the fall.

“Don’t look at an autogenous vaccine as a cure-all,” Rethorst concludes. “What other stressors are tweaking the immune system, letting calves develop pinkeye or respiratory disease?”

Chance Armstrong, DVM, food animal veterinary specialist at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine, says veterinarians may not know the true efficacy of autogenous vaccines when compared to available commercial vaccines.

“Efficacy data is associated with USDA mandates through the Center for Veterinary Biologics,” Armstrong explains. “In certain situations, where herd management is good but traditional therapies have failed, I have suggested using autogenous vaccines.”

Armstrong recommends autogenous vaccines when there are many strains or variables to certain diseases. Some isolates are not available in a commercial vaccine because the disease-causing “bugs” mutate often. Autogenous vaccines are especially useful when a strain is ranch specific.

Get ahead of a condition by utilizing a solid vaccination program before sickness appears. It may not eliminate the disease, even with the best-designed vaccination program. The animal must have a sound, working immune system at the time of vaccination.

Well-grounded management strategies such as parasite control, biosecurity, vaccinations, genetics and stress elimination are crucial to preventing infections. Armstrong advises working closely with a veterinarian who understands the local or regional challenges associated with each ranch.

Armstrong advocates low-stress cattle handling, an essential component to overall herd health and animal welfare. When producers limit handling stress, animals can respond more effectively to a vaccine. In Louisiana, stressors include extreme heat, humidity and poor handling. While no commercial vaccine is 100 percent efficacious, operators should give it every opportunity to be successful.

“Start by looking at your herd health program,” Armstrong advises. “Are there things you can do better? Sometimes the challenging aspects of preventative programs are easy for producers to ignore because they are more difficult to implement. I would be very critical of my herd health program before I change vaccination protocols.

“Understand the challenges and issues on your operation and which commercial vaccines are available. If you have used traditional therapies and still have a problem, consider an autogenous vaccine. Understand it is a killed product that requires boostering three to four weeks after the initial vaccination.

Vaccines cannot make up for poor management. Ranchers should review their management strategies and improve areas that have fallen behind. When producers do their homework and visit with their veterinarians, they can learn how autogenous vaccines can be another tool in the rancher’s toolbox.