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Some thoughts on calving shelter

In cold climates calving barns are necessary for early calving — as some ranchers must do, to calve and breed before going to summer pastures. Some ranchers prefer to have the calves big enough to utilize summer grass. Others calve early so they can have their cows all bred at home before they go to community pastures with a variety of bulls. On some summer pastures when cattle are widely spread out in rugged terrain, it’s also harder to get timely breed-up when bulls have to travel long distances between groups of cows. Some producers want their cattle bred at home to their own bulls in a selective breeding program, especially for the heifers, so they can use low-birth weight bulls. Purebred breeders often calve early so the bull calves will be old enough and big enough to sell in a spring bull sale the next year. Calving early necessitates good facilities, and shelter for the calving cows and young calves.

Dr. Steve Hendrick.
photo: Supplied

Regardless of your season of calving, some kind of calving facility is essential in case you do have to work with a cow for some reason. Dr. Steve Hendrick of the Coaldale Veterinary Clinic in Coaldale, Alta., says facilities should be practical and affordable. “Calving facilities need to be set up so you can handle cattle quietly and easily as a single person, because often the rancher is working alone,” he says.

A chute for restraining a cow at calving should be designed so that if she lies down the headcatch won’t put a bind on her head and neck. One or both sides should also swing away if needed for working with a cow that lies down. “I also like the chutes with split sides that give access to the top or the bottom — for doing a C-section, or taking the bottom panel away for suckling a calf,” he says.

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Ideally you want a floor that provides traction for the cow so she won’t slip and slide around, but is also easy to clean. “Roughened concrete often works very well. It provides traction but can also be washed between cows. It’s not too slippery but is easy to clean.”

Part of designing a calving setup is just knowing what your expectations are for that facility, and what you need it for. “If it’s just for the odd calving problem, that’s a little different than if you are calving in the dead of winter and need enough shelter and facilities to warm calves or pair calves up with their mothers. You’d need more extensive facilities than if you were calving in May,” he explains.

The ideal calving season is different for each operation, and a person needs to figure out and create facilities that will work for that particular operation. “We have some producers we work with who send their cattle to grazing pastures and they like to have their calves a certain age and size by the time they send them — so that dictates when they calve,” he says.

Facilities must fit your program and terrain. “The location may be important, in terms of convenience, such as close to your house if you’ll need to be checking the cattle often, but this isn’t always practical in every situation.” Calving facilities must be high and dry, and not in an area that might be flooded during a winter thaw or spring runoff, or by irrigation water. A protected area out of the wind may also be important.

“The facilities will also vary depending on whether you are continually assisting and managing calving, versus a calving pasture where cows are more on their own. If cows are calving out on pasture it needs to be high and dry, situated on a south-facing hill or a slope for good drainage, with some windbreaks. These can be natural, with trees, or man-made,” says Hendrick.

“Some ranchers here utilize a calving system similar to the Sand Hills program in Nebraska. They move the pairs out to clean areas as they calve. This doesn’t work here in February, but works if a producer is calving a bit later,” he says.

Calf shelter is also important if a person is calving in winter or early spring when there may be stormy weather. “Keeping those shelters high and dry is crucial. They are often situated south-facing for morning sunshine. There’s often not a lot of direct sunlight in the winter and the days are shorter, but with the sun coming into those shelters it gives some chance for them to dry out a bit. They need to be well bedded, to keep calves up off the cold or wet ground,” he says.

“Some people think calf shelters are simply to stop drafts (getting calves out of the wind) but even more important is a roof to keep those calves dry. Cold weather is not as hard on calves as wet weather. Calves can handle very cold weather, if they are dry. When we get weather that hovers around freezing, any snow or rain will take a toll on certain groups of animals, especially calves,” says Hendrick.

When cattle are wet they lose the insulating effect of a good hair coat. The hair normally stands up nice and fluffy with tiny air spaces between the hairs — providing excellent insulation against the cold. When hair is wet, however, it lies down flatter and loses its insulating quality. A wet calf will chill much quicker than a dry calf; the dry calf can handle much colder temperatures. If calves can get out of the rain or snow and stay dry, they are more comfortable, and stay healthier.

“Calf shelters should be well bedded, with adequate space for the number of calves using the shelter. We always say that dilution is the solution to pollution,” says Hendrick. A three-sided structure or a half-quonset hut works nicely if it’s on skids. Moving these sheds around is a good strategy if it starts to get too wet or dirty in or around the shed. You can move them to a clean location and re-bed them.

photo: Supplied

“It also makes good sense to frequently move your feeding location to a clean area in the pasture, to have the cattle on clean ground,” says Hendrick. Then the calves have a clean place if they are lying in the hay, and the cows don’t get dirty flanks and udders if they are lying down.

For any facility figuring out the proper size and space is important. “You don’t want the animals too crowded, whether it’s a barn or your calving pasture, or the pasture where the pairs go after they are sorted out,” he says.

“We’ve had some clients using a number of different camera systems in their barn or calving area. Not that you can calve from your La-Z-Boy in the house, but the camera might save you some trips outside. Also it’s nice to be able to monitor and check on the cows from a distance rather than being out there all the time disturbing the whole group. I don’t think we always realize what our presence does to some of the younger or more flighty cows that are nervous when people are around,” says Hendrick.

In a calving barn it always helps if there’s a way you can check on the progress of a calving cow without having to be very close to her. If you can see the cows from a distance and not disrupt and disturb them, they may not get as nervous or put off calving. A lot depends on how you handle your cattle and what they are accustomed to. Some herds are very used to people and have always been handled quietly and the cows don’t get very upset, while other herds may not see people that often and the presence of a human is very disturbing to those cows. It also depends on whether the cattle know you.

“We have an elderly client who walks through his cows and handles them at calving time and they are quiet as can be, but if a stranger goes through them they get very upset. It’s interesting how different the cattle can be, with different people.” Cattle feel secure and at ease with someone they trust, but may be very suspicious of strangers.


Keeping the barn clean

Any calving shed or barn should be designed for easy cleaning. Doorways, alleys, pens, gates should all be large enough to get a tractor through, so you won’t be stuck with having to clean with a fork and wheelbarrow. Unless a barn is easy to clean, there will be times it will NOT be cleaned, and this can lead to problems.

Keeping stalls clean may mean putting new bedding in for each calving cow. Straw, sawdust, wood chips or shavings can work, depending on what’s available. A purebred breeder in Montana who calves early says the best way to use chips or shavings is to put them in first, and straw on top. The moisture goes down through the straw and into the chips and this keeps the top layer dry. Then all you have to do is pitch the manure out, without having to clean out the whole stall.

In a barn with a dirt floor or concrete, stalls need to be cleaned after every cow because everything is wet. But if you put chips down first, and straw on top, the straw stays drier and cleaner and you can use it eight to 10 times before you have to take all the straw out again, if you just throw the cow pies out between cows. In his barn he puts five inches of chips on the floor and then adds a layer of five or six inches of straw. Even with a cow in there, the next morning it will be dry on top and he can throw out the manure and use it again. This saves time, and straw.

“We just throw the cow pies into the alleyway and go through there every few days with the tractor and loader and push or drag it out. It doesn’t take me very long to clean the barn,” he says.

Sometimes after it’s been cold and everything is frozen, the bedding stays dry because the moisture and manure freeze. If you have a lot of cows in the barn, the stalls get wet very swiftly when the weather warms up.

“Usually, with the layer of chips, it’s only the centre of the stall that gets wet; sometimes I only change those chips a couple times during calving season. Usually the moisture is in the centre and I can clean that part and leaving the bedding around the edges; those chips are still dry. Most days I just take the cow pies off the top with a barn fork, and when I do clean it out it’s easy to clean because there’s not very much straw and it’s not heavy or wet. When it starts getting wet in the middle. you just pitch out or drag out the centre with a tractor.”

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