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Getting ready for calving

Vet Advice with Dr. Ron Clarke

Your calving area should be clean, dry and close to shelter.

It’s better to look ahead and prepare, than look backwards and regret. — Mark Twain

When preparing for the spring season, there are several things to keep in mind.

Avoid surprises about the bull battery. Track the start and end of calving season. It 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 such as 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 to 3.0 and heifers 3.0 to 3.5 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 ten 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 at least $16.50/head.
  • Every time a cow misses a breeding cycle, it costs 42 lbs. in weaning weight.

Adjustments to energy intake must 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.

Ready calving facilities prior to calving. For herds calving early, protecting the newborn calf from weather extremes becomes a critical consideration.

The calving area should be clean, dry and close to shelter. Maternity pens with a head gate and crowding panel are a third hand for obstetrical assistance and nursing issues.

Check the inventory of needed items such as 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 such as 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/facilities 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 such as scour-causing E. coli, cryptosporidia, coccidia, and rota and coronaviruses grow quickly in crowded, damp conditions. Numbers 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, a cesspool of disease, 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.

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 to two litres) as colostrum within six hours and again within the subsequent six hours. Commercial colostrum supplements may be necessary. 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.

Consider the calving grounds a controlled environment where limiting exposure to disease-causing organisms is most critical. The risk of developing disease is a function of pathogen numbers and the length of time animals are exposed. Talk to your veterinarian about the Nebraska Sandhills Calving System that reduces extended contact among calves and transmission of pathogens from older to younger animals.

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

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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