Losing a calf at any time has nothing to recommend it, but losing one at birth is particularly distressing. Aside from the emotions of the loss it is an entire year of effort and time put into the calf lying lifeless at your feet.
The only positive to come out of any calf death is usually an intensified resolve not to let it happen again for the same reason.
When we began ranching we lost considerably more than our fair share of calves at birth. Basic inexperience, lack of husbandry education and on occasion sheer out-and-out stupidity created the so-called “perfect storm” for calving disasters.
Early on I confess we swallowed the pervasive belief that any issues related to calving difficulties invariably were the responsibility of the sire. Calves too big, too small, too squat, too ungainly, stillborn, weak or mal presentation — all enjoyed rational explanation. “It’s that damn bull.”
No question a ghastly bull will now and again show up in a herd (we bought one) but by and large most bulls offered as breeding stock are suitable for the purpose for which they are intended.
We later learned there are many contributing factors to dystocia.
In our case, the number of early death losses defied explanation. We embraced the concept of “easy calving” as the holy grail of raising cattle and that is certainly an essential goal. But it too has limitations. We still lost calves even after we had the issue of mismatched cow-to-calf size sorted out.
As it turned out we had developed a percentage of our breeding stock that were too easy calving (there is such a thing).
We were losing calves because there was insufficient resistance to the calf’s movement in the vaginal canal. The calves were born too readily and there was not enough sidewall pressure to split the amniotic sack. Accordingly the calves couldn’t benefit from their mother’s squeezing that normally propels mucus out of their lungs. After being expelled from the dam they were still full of fluids and would drown, never having had an opportunity to breathe.
The dam, seemingly at her leisure, would remove the sack and lick the calf as usual, but it was too late. She was ministering to a perfectly formed dead calf lying motionless on the ground.
There are different rules for each farming operation. What applies well in one cannot necessarily be claimed to be successful in another. The solution we arrived at corresponded with our concentrated style of management.
We had a small herd of purebred Red Angus, a breed well recognized for ease of calving. Our initiative then, strange as it may seem, was to do a 180 and increase calving time. That gave us more opportunity to intervene and perforate the amniotic sack when required, and yielded higher performing calves as an almost incidental bonus. Only a small percentage of the cows actually needed help but our time was more than compensated for by the increased performance.
With this increased attendance at calving we noticed an interesting phenomenon. There was frequently a huge difference in amniotic sack thickness between animals and between years. Some membranes popped with the lightest touch and others required the use of a sharp object, such as a clean nail.
Once the nose had been presented we’d split the membrane, move it off the nostrils as far back as possible and stand aside. That worked extremely well. I know purists reject any intervention on principle but saving a calf, for me, trumped any philosophical arguments.
We set a target birth weight of 85 to 100 pounds, once the calves dried off and had a first sucking. This added weight increased field performance and our marketing opportunities.
It doesn’t take a large patch of membrane to smother a calf. Very light membrane can be drawn onto and into the nostrils if left to flap around, and the calf is just as dead as if it had never left the sack at all.
There will always be instances of ranchers claiming 100 per cent calving success every year without any attention at all on their part. This may well be the truth, but most of us need the comfort of tighter supervision. If a calf has been pushed out past the head and is still carrying its membrane the sack may well slip off later on its own. Again, it might not. The cost of not reaching out to help is too great to ignore.
Stan Harder is a retired Red Angus breeder living in St. Brides, Alta.