You've reached the Virginia Cooperative Extension Newsletter Archive. These files cover more than ten years of newsletters posted on our old website (through April/May 2009), and are provided for historical purposes only. As such, they may contain out-of-date references and broken links.

To see our latest newsletters and current information, visit our website at

Newsletter Archive index:

Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

The Cow-Calf Manager: Pre-Calving Management

Livestock Update, January 1998

John B. Hall, Ph.D., Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, Virginia Tech

It's hard to believe that Spring calving season is almost upon us. The last 30 to 45 days are an important time of preparation for both the cow and the cattleman. The past two months I've concentrated on nutrition and the importance of body condition at calving. The pre-calving period is no different in the importance of nutrition and good body condition to the health of the calf.

How many times have you heard someone say, "Ya don't want to get those cows fat before calving, you'll have more problems with them calves. You better quit feeding those cows so much." ? Well not only are these folks wrong, but they're dead wrong! Dead calves that is. A great deal of research has examined the effects of underfeeding during the last 30 to 45 days before calving. Some research has looked at obese cows (body condition score 8 & 9), but those studies are limited. And honestly, ery few producers have many BCS 8 or 9 cows.

Cows and heifers in good body condition have healthier more vigorous calves. Research from Colorado demonstrated that calves from heifers in BCS 5 or 6 stood sooner and nursed earlier than calves from thin heifers. Calves from well nourished cows also can generate more heat from their fat store which helps them withstand the cold. In these studies, "restricted heifers" gained weight, but not as much as their counterparts. Table 1 shows the difference between BCS 4, 5 and 6 heifers for various pre-calving and calving responses. Note the heifers that were BCS 5 or 6 at calving had acceptable to high weight gains during the last part of gestation.

Effect of nutrition during the last 45 days before calving on heifer gain and calf health

  Condition Score
Lbs gained by heifer 48.490.4135.9
Average daily gain of heifer, lb./day
Birth Weight of calf, lb.80.189.884.7
Calving ease score
1= no assistance 3=hard pull
Heat Production calf medium high high

In a study done at Virginia Tech by Dr. Bill Beal, feeding inadequate amounts of energy during late gestation increased the number of calves that died within 24 hours of birth. In addition, heifers that were underfed during late gestation lost more calves from birth to weaning. Calves from cows underfed during late gestation are more likely to die from calving problems, exposure, starvation or scours than calves from well fed cows.

So underfeeding cows and heifers during the last 30-45 days of gestation will result in reduced calf crop at weaning.

Heifers that calve in good body condition have less or similar incidence of dystocia as thin heifers. It is true that calves from well fed heifers and cows will weigh 5 to 8 lbs more than calves from underfed animals. However, results from studies in Virginia, Montana, Colorado and Nebraska show no increase in calving difficulty (dystocia) because of this nutritional increase in birth weight. In fact, researchers in Montana reported that heifers were more likely to have calving difficulty because heifers simply "ran out of steam" during labor.

Vaccinations are helpful in preventing calf scours. If your herd has a problems with calf scours then you should vaccinate for e.coli bacteria and rota and corona viruses. These vaccines and bacterins need to be given within 30 days of calving so the antibodies will be present in the colostrum. Some late calving cows may have to re-vaccinated. There are several good products available, consult your veterinarian for product recommendations.

Preparing yourself and facilities is for calving is also important. The calving area should be clean with access to a shed and calving assistance facilities (a head gate etc.). In the past few years, companies are offering maternity pens. Most of these are really good and producers may want to consider getting one. These pens include a headgate, crowd panel and nursing panel. They cost from $1000 to $1800 but if they help save three calves the equipment will pay for itself. If you want to make your own maternity pen, go look at some of the better commercial ones to help you design yours.

Portable calf shelters are good if you are calving in Jan - early March. These shelters need to be moved on a regular basis to prevent calf scours. A calf warming box is great to have too. Plans for these should be available at your extension office. Have the agent give me a call if he needs new ones. I also have some plans for portable calving barns we used up North.

Prepare yourself for calving by reviewing proper calving management procedures. I will have articles on this soon. In addition, there are several good videos available commercially. Make sure you have the items listed below on hand before calving starts and you know how to use them.

  • Calving chains
  • Calving Jack
  • Ear tags
  • Iodine for navels
  • IRM Red book
  • OB sleeves
  • OB lubricant
  • Injectable selenium
  • Tattooer and ink
  • Colostrum - 2 gal frozen in quarts
  • Tube feeder - calf type
  • Rags and towels
  • Flashlight
  • Handheld spotlight
  • Next month - Calving managememt

    Visit Virginia Cooperative Extension