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Five steps to a successful calving season

Preparations in advance makes calving season both easier on you and your herd

mother cow and calf

Calving season is an exciting time of year in most operations. It is exciting to see new calves hitting the ground, but it can also be exciting in more of a pending emergency sort of way.

Most herds that have successful, low-drama calving seasons have several things in common, regardless of their calving season, most of them start preparing well in advance of calving.

1. Genetics

There are significant differences in calving ease within breeds. With modern tools such as EPD for calving ease (how easily calves are born) and maternal calving ease (how easily a sire’s daughters will calve) it is possible to select sires and produce females that will minimize calving difficulty. This preparation has to occur at least nine months in advance for calves, and three years ahead for female production. Selection pressure on calving ease can be decreased as cows mature and depending upon the calving system in place. It is important to note that each breed expresses differences in calving ease on their own scale, and EPD cannot be compared between breeds.

2. Heifer development

There is a fine line between saving a buck and properly developing replacements so that they have the structure and capacity to calve unassisted. Typically this will start post-weaning and progress through to three years of age. Remember, a first-calf heifer is still growing herself, raising a calf and working on getting rebred. Getting a good head start on heifer development can alleviate many of these challenges.

3. Diet

Live calves are the result of healthy cows and a good in utero environment. If your management system involves winter feeding then accurate feed testing should be done prior to the feeding period and rations checked for shortfalls or excesses. There are several good, low-cost software tools available to help in this process. If you are not comfortable doing this yourself get a nutritionist to work with you. Many of the feed companies will have nutritionists on staff or be able to direct you to local resources. Again, younger cows, older cows or thin cows may require additional management and groceries to reduce potential problems in advance.

4. Health

Again, this is a process that starts well in advance of calving. If not already doing so, it is worth considering pre-breeding vaccination of the cow herd with a good program to protect against BVD, IBR, lepto and other disease complexes. It is also worth considering updating boosters of 8-way on the cow herd at the same time. Semen testing bulls prior to turnout, and testing for issues such as trichomoniasis may also be good investments. These are all items that must occur at least nine to 10 months in advance of your calving season.

If scours are an issue in the herd, then it may pay to consider some of the scour vaccination programs. These must be done prior to calving, and it is important to remember if you are implementing the program for the first time, or if you are doing replacement heifers, an initial shot and a booster a few weeks later is required.

It is a great idea to develop your relationship with your veterinarian and discuss these programs. Exercising precautions in advance of problems is usually a good investment.

5. Facilities

Facilities can vary widely between operations and calving seasons. Last-minute preparations whether that be assembling a calving chute or making sure a lariat is tied to your saddle will also vary, but take the time before calving to make sure that essential supplies are replenished and available, and that whatever facilities are to be used are clean, repaired and organized. We keep all of our supplies in an easy-to-access tool box. Items you may want to have on hand include: needles, lubricant, calving chains, gloves, vitamin ADE/selenium, a good antibiotic, disinfectant, colostrum, stomach tube, rope or halter, scale, tags/tagger, and notebook.

No matter how uneventful a calving season is, it always takes time. Preparations in advance can definitely set up a cow herd and a rancher for success and avoid a lot of sleepless nights. Here’s wishing you an exciting calving season, in a boring, uneventful sort of way.

Sean McGrath is a genetics consultant and co-owner of Round Rock Ranching in Vermilion, Alta.

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