In the last several years our calving season has changed dramatically. Most of these changes have been for the best. This article outlines several preventative health and management changes I have seen producers making in hopes they may provide some new ideas you can implement on your farm.
With good bull selection, and virtually all the breeds now have heifer bulls, keeping an eye on calving cows is much more relaxed than it once was. But close observation is still needed when temperatures drop and the wind chills are high enough to freeze ears, tails or more seriously damage the extremities of a calf.
A lot of producers now calve later in the spring when weather is not such a huge issue. That leaves even fewer ears and tails frozen so there is less room to discount these calves in the fall.
Whereas the norm used to be that we check cows calving every two to three hours, the interval between checks can now be longer, drastically reducing the labour necessary to calve out a herd. A few problem births may be missed but even with close monitoring 50 to 75 per cent of breech births and torsions would commonly result in a dead calf. With calving in the pasture once or twice a day is about all the checking that is needed and with increasing daylight in the spring this becomes an easier proposition. It is safer and easier to move cows that have to be assisted in the daylight versus the dead of night.
On pasture, calves (older than one day) quickly become uncatchable so nothing is done with the calves until processing. At this time, preferably before weaning, calves are processed with their necessary shots, the bulls are castrated, implanted and the entire group can be RFID tagged. Any potential replacements could be dangle tagged at this time as well. Most of the extra labour that is necessary at calving is funneled into one more convenient period. With a good facility this makes light work.
Producers can see the difference in gain from leaving male calves as bulls for a longer time. The potential benefits of implants are thus further justified. Any calves which do become sick with scours, pneumonia etc. can be tagged and given the vitamin ADE and Se shots at that time.
On the negative side, not all calves will be vaccinated at the ideal time and could be exposed to diseases such as blackleg or IBR before you have a chance to vaccinate. Also, the calves are not cross-referenced with their mothers at birth so culling becomes harder as poor-producing cows may escape detection. If you do decide to age verify all the calves they could only be done on the date the first calf was born. This is not a huge thing if the females calve close together. Calves which are slow to rise or suck lack colostrum so partial starvation of calves on poor milking cows is harder to pick up. This is offset somewhat by the reduced stress on the cows that are not being moved into calving barns or rushed to deliver by an overzealous farmer on a calf jack. The more natural delivery typically results in fewer retained placentas or uterine infections than you expect with assisted deliveries. Less handling at birth results in fewer injuries from cows swinging around in confined pens and stepping on their calves. Before deciding on the best approach and time of year to calve one must weigh the pros and cons to an operation.
Purebred people want early calving so the bulls can be sold as yearlings. They also need to cross-reference dams to their calves for registration. Most purebred breeders weigh calves accurately. You can usually tell which ones estimate birthweight by the fact calves are listed in multiples of five pounds. As well, purebred breeders generally dehorn with paste to give the real polled look and many tattoo at a young age which are two more reasons to individually handle each cow-calf pair.
Other fringe benefits to later calving include fewer problems with manure disposal as the cows basically don’t need confinement and more exercise for the cows so they are in better shape and have even fewer calving problems. Early calfhood diseases such as navel infection or scours are generally minimized as calves are spread out diluting infectious organisms. With late spring storms still possible on the Prairies portable windbreaks or natural stands of trees should be available. Some producers will put creep areas in movable sheds in the event of a storm or cold nights. This cuts down stress on calves at a time in their lives when they are very susceptible to contracting disease.
If we look back on our cattle industry some of the things we do seem to be coming full circle with people calving larger herds on bigger tracts of lands. In some cases quads have replaced horses but in many ways the Western way of doing things is returning for practical reasons. Proper selection for cows with good udders and good maternal characteristics as well as easy calving have drastically limited the labour necessary at calving.