The Cow-Calf Manager - First 72 Hours Critical for Calves
Livestock Update, March 2001
John Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech
By now, most of you are starting or in the midst of calving. The weather has been pretty good, so hopefully all is well. It is easy in all the excitement and rush of calving season to overlook some basic management procedures that affect the calf for the rest of his life. We normally dole out a list, but this time I thought it might be good to look at it from a time-line perspective.
Assist cows and heifers early. If you think there is a problem, get them up and check them. As long as the cow is properly dilated, pulling the calf a little early won't hurt. In fact, research indicates that cows that are assisted early rather than allowed to struggle have healthier calves and breed back sooner. Review your calving assistance procedures, either by attending a workshop or by getting one of the calving videos that is commercially available.
Don't be afraid to call the vet and call before it is too late to do any good. Yes, the vet call will cost you, but a live calf makes more money than a dead one. Remember as Dr. Dee Whittier says, "To go to bed or go to work on a calvin' cow is just sorry."
Calves should stand and nurse within 2 hours of birth if everything is normal and weather is not severe. For maximum antibody exposure from the colostrum, calves need to nurse within four hours of birth. Cows should be checked to see if they have been nursed or calves should be assisted in nursing. Calves that experience a difficult birth take longer to stand and are more likely to succumb to weather stress. Weak calves need to be tube fed stored colostrum if they have not nursed by 4 hours. Remember colostrum is best in this order: Mom's, stored beef cattle, stored dairy cattle then dried colostrum as a last resort. Antibody levels are highest in beef colostrum.
During extremely cold or wet weather calves should be moved to shelter or a calf warmer during this period if needed. Calves that are constantly shivering and have not nursed need to be warmed. Worse yet calves that are lethargic and unable to rise need help right away. If you put your fingers in a calf's mouth and it feels cool and the calf has no suckling reflex, then the calf is critical and needs to be warmed immediately. Remember these signs of hypothermia.
Calves should be processed at this time. All calves should be tagged. For commercial operations, a tag that has the same number as his mother is a good way to match cows and calves. If replacement heifers are kept, the tag can be changed later. Other procedures:
If weather is severe, calves should be checked for hypothermia. Cow should be checked to see if they have "cleaned" or expelled the afterbirth.
Weak calves or cow/calf pairs with mothering problems should be moved from the calving pasture to a barn or special well-drained paddock for extra attention and care. Putting weak calves in a muddy, dirty or wet area is a sure formula for a dead calf.
So as you are out there fighting the cold or the rain, or the temptation to not check one more time hits you, remember what you do in the first 72 hours of a calf's life has a big impact. What you do during the first 3 days has a big effect on the health and welfare of your herd as well as your bottom line. Wishing you a safe and successful calving season.