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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.

Hour - 4 to 0 - Labor through Calving

Researchers in Montana found that almost 50% of calves that die in the first 24 hours after birth and most stillbirths are the result of dystocia or calving problems. It is very important that cows are observed often, 3 to 4 times per day, if possible and heifers even more often. "Whoa" you say, " I can't do that as a part-time beef producer!" You can if you use some tricks. Put heifers in a pasture near the house where they can be seen from a convenient window, this way you don't have to truck out there every time. If cows are in a pasture that can easily be seen from the road, then you can check them to and from your off-farm job. Don't forget to enlist the help of spouse, children and neighbors to give you a call if they see a cow or heifer calving.

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."

Hour 0 - 4 - Birth to Standing

Sometimes we do not see calves this young, but hopefully we will see most of the calves during this very critical time. If weather is bad, we need to make sure we see calves during the first 4 hours of life.

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.

Hour 4-12 - Standing to Processing

This is the last chance for the calf to get large amounts of colostrum for antibody transfer. By 12 hours, the ability of a calf to absorb antibodies from colostrum is reduced by 50% by 24 hours he cannot absorb antibodies. Calves that don't get enough colostrum in the first 12 hours are more likely to have scours and respiratory problems.

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.

Hour 12 - 24 - First day

Calves not processed should be processed at this time. Calves are still susceptible to hypothermia, check regularly in severe weather. Make sure the cow is doing a good job of mothering the calf and the calf appears to be getting enough to eat. Calves that are lethargic, standing humped up or that look cold may not be getting enough to eat. Cows with mothering problems and their calves may need to be isolated in a barn or pen during the first day.

Hour 24 - 48 - Second day

Calves should easily be able to follow dam, but calves will also sleep a lot during the first week of life. Calves should look perky and well fed. Observe for signs of weather stress, hypothermia or starvation.

Hour 48-72 - Third day

Calves should be spunky and be hard to catch. All pairs that are doing well should be moved from calving area to large pasture. Keeping cow/calf pairs spread out on a large, well-drained pasture is a key to reducing the incidence of scours in young calves. Treat any cows with retained placentas with long acting antibiotic or as directed by your veterinarian before turning out to the big pasture.

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.

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