Get ready for calving

Another list you might say. Seems important things tendered as advice always come in a list; some is trivia, some make sense, others simply repeat what’s been said before. The following is a bit of all three, but needs to be offered as a reminder each calving season. Hang this one by the door and glance at it each time you are going to the calving shed to check cows, or taking a ride through the calving pasture this spring. Nothing really new, just important points about getting ready for calving.

√ No surprises about the breeding performance of the bull battery. The start and end of calving season should match the start and end of a controlled breeding season. If the calving period stretches beyond two to three heat cycles, if there is an unexpected number of open cows or the distribution of calves born is erratic, bulls should be checked and common reproductive diseases like those caused by campylobacter and tritrichomonas ruled out. Preg check cows in the fall.

√ Body condition of brood cows. To obtain optimum post-calving fertility, mature cows should calve with a body condition score of 2.5 and heifers 2.5 to 3.0 and maintain it through the breeding season. Thin cows produce lower quality colostrum, less vigorous calves, do not return to heat and rebreed as quickly, and wean lighter calves. Thin cows, overall, are much less productive than cows in good body condition. Did you know?

  • Reproductive rate is five times more important than growth rate and 10 times more important than carcass quality when it comes to PROFIT!
  • Everything else being equal, a two per cent improvement in reproductive efficiency lowers cost of production by $16.50/head.
  • Every time a cow misses a breeding cycle, it costs 42 lb. in weaning weight!

Adjustments to energy intake need to start at least 90 days before calving. Check with your veterinarian or agriculture extension specialist about body condition scoring and nutrition through the last trimester of pregnancy. The nutrient demands associated with lactation make it difficult and expensive to add body condition after calving.

√ For herds calving early, protecting the newborn calf from weather extremes becomes a critical consideration. The newborns possess a limited ability to regulate body temperature and are very susceptible to cold. A cold-stressed or hypothermic calf is not thrifty and its survival in cold, wet, muddy conditions can be severely compromised. Bedding and shelter are important.

√ Preparing calving facilities prior to calving. The calving area should be clean and dry and in close proximity to shelter. Maternity pens with a head gate, crowding gate, and nursing panel help. Check the inventory of needed items like disposable sleeves, calving jack, OB chains or straps, disinfectant, tube feeder, towels, light source, tags and tattoo equipment. Infection is a numbers game; keep things clean. Traumatic injury is common. Crowded conditions increase the risk of calves being stepped on or crushed. Physical hazards like protruding nails, broken posts, loose wire, standing water and exposed electrical wires create danger zones for young calves. Barns are a common storage site for partially used containers of toxic pesticides or carelessly discarded batteries, a frequent source of lead poisoning for the inquisitive calf. Calving grounds should be examined for potential hazards every year prior to calving season.

√ Minimizing the risk of infectious disease is still the biggest challenge for most cow-calf producers. Cold and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) increase the risk of calf death from infectious disease four to eight fold. Lack of vigour and unresponsiveness are cardinal signs of problems. Pre-calving vaccination programs for cows provide immunity to the calf via colostrum. There are several diseases that cows can be vaccinated for before calving. Consult with your veterinarian to develop the vaccination strategy that is appropriate for your operation. Acquired infections after birth are primarily a numbers game. The adult cow is most often the unwitting donor of pathogens for her own and other calves. The numbers of pathogens like scour-causing E. coli, cryptosporidia, coccidia and rota and corona viruses grow quickly in crowded, damp conditions, then explode when sick calves start shedding billions more infectious particles. The inventory of “bad bugs” steadily increases during the span of a calving season unless care is taken to create space and clean ground.

√ Start clean, stay clean. Preventing scours is a matter of controlling pathogen numbers and maintaining resistance. Temperature and moisture play a role. Mud and snow favour the buildup of pathogens. Cold can be a stressor that impairs the ability of calves to resist disease. Biosecurity in a sewer isn’t achievable. Auction markets are a cesspool of disease and should be considered off limits during calving season unless care is taken to clean boots and change clothes at home. Follow basic rules of sanitation when treating sick calves. Use disposable gloves. Wash hands frequently. Disinfect boots and change clothes often. Leave treating sick calves until after you have handled healthy ones — never before. Disinfect all balling guns or esophageal feeders after treating sick calves. Have a number of simple handwashing and disinfection stations around the calving area with a few jugs of warm water, disinfectant soap and several cheap coolers to keep things from freezing. A few simple rules and a dash of imagination means those in charge of the calving barn solve problems rather than create them. The farm dog, barn cats, birds and rodents can all be part of biosecurity breaks.

√ Know what you are dealing with. Fighting a war is impossible without knowing the enemy. Because infectious scours and respiratory infections can be complex, a correct diagnosis precedes any meaningful control program and plans for the future. Work with your veterinarian.

√ Colostrum is critical to survival of the newborn calf. Manage it wisely. Calves should receive five to six per cent of their body weight (1.5–2 litres) as colostrum within six hours and again within the subsequent six hours. If the calves are not able to nurse or the cow’s production of colostrum is insufficient, colostrum from other cows or commercial colostrum supplements may be necessary. Ideally, colostrum should be collected from cows within 24 hours of calving and fed fresh. Colostrum can also be collected, frozen and used later. Colostrum should only be used from cows known to be free of Johne’s disease. Calves that have failed to nurse within three hours should be given colostrum by esophageal feeder.

√ Animal separation is a part of controlling disease. Calves from heifers face a greater risk of getting sick. Heifers produce smaller amounts of lower-quality colostrum. As well, heifers have poorer mothering skills and are more likely to experience calving difficulty. Deal with these problems at the start of the calving season when things are the cleanest and the least harried. Consider the calving grounds a controlled environment where limiting exposure to disease-causing organisms is most critical and factors like overcrowding, cold and dampness affect the ability of calves to resist disease. Simple things like keeping the udders of nursing cows clean and the calf’s environment dry and comfortable as possible are important first steps in controlling infections. The risk of developing disease is a function of pathogen numbers and the length of time animals are exposed. Crowded conditions increase the risk of disease on both counts. As calving season progresses so does the risk of acquiring infection. The Nebraska Sandhills Calving System offers basic, yet important management options. In summary, the Sandhill’s system effectively reduces extended contact among calves and transmission of pathogens from older to younger calves. It involves scheduled movement of pregnant cows — the primary source of infectious organisms — to clean calving areas. The objective: to re-create starting conditions of calving season each week by having new calves dropped in uncontaminated areas, free of older, infective calves.

Eliminating many of the infectious organisms we may deal with in calving season is not possible because they may be normal inhabitants of a cow’s gut. The strategy becomes understanding the things we can control. The producer in consultation with a veterinarian has a list of issues to consider. Among them:

  • Diagnostic protocols
  • Treatment protocols
  • Movement control into and 
out of calving areas
  • Nutrition
  • Vaccination programs
  • Hygiene (people, equipment, buildings)
  • Colostrum management
  • Pasture management during 
calving season
  • Herd management during calving season
  • Staff training.

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).


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