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The Cow-Calf Manager: Calving Management

Livestock Update, February 1998

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

It's calving season, a critical time of the year for any cow-calf operation. Management during this phase of production must be the best. Producers must strive to 1) Get calves here alive, 2) Keep them alive, and 3) Keep them healthy. It sounds straightforward but it is often a challenge.

Any dead calf is an automatic $400-500 or greater loss. Any calf that gets sick in the first 45 days will weigh 35-40 lbs less at weaning than a calf that didn't get sick. Cows that have calving difficulty will rebreed later and more of them will be open. Calves that survive calving difficulty are twice as likely to get sick during the first 45 days of life.

The major causes of young calf death or illness are 1) Dystocia (calving difficulty), 2) Starvation, 3) Hypothermia (exposure), 4) Metabolic disorders, 5) Scours and pneumonia, and 6) Trauma. Most of these causes can be prevented or reduced with good calving management.

Dystocia. Almost 50% of all young-calf deaths, birth to 24 hours old, are a result of calving difficulty. Producers often misdiagnose dystocia as "stillbirths." Calves that are delivered easily and in the normal amount of time are rarely "stillborn." Most calves that die during calving are a result of dystocia. Observing cattle often and assisting cows and heifers early can reduce problems with dystocia. Cows should be checked 3 to 4 times (or more) per day. Heifers should be observed at least every 4 hours, if possible.

Cows that are in active labor should make good progress or deliver a calf in 1 hour. If they are not making progress, the position and size of the calf should be checked. A cow in active labor should not be left alone for more than an hour. Cows in labor should be checked before producers leave the farm. Good facilities are essential.

Research from the USDA in Miles City, Mont., has determined that it is better to assist early as long as cervix is fully dilated than to allow cows to struggle. More calves survive from early assisted cows, and they are healthier. Early assisted cows bred back earlier and there were fewer open cows. Producers need to know the proper techniques to assist cows with out injuring the cow or calf. If producers have not been able to deliver a calf or make significant progress after 30 minutes of good effort, they should call a veterinarian for assistance.

Starvation and insufficient colostrum. Calves that die of starvation are often considered to have died of other problems or metabolic disorders. Calves that don't nurse quickly (within 2 to 4 hours) after birth often die of exposure or become weak and unable to nurse and starve. In addition, the ability of a calf to absorb antibodies from colostrum declines rapidly 12 hours after birth, and the calf cannot absorb antibodies after it is 24 hours old. Calves need to have there first drink of colostrum 2 to 4 hours after birth.

All calves should be checked to see if they have nursed within 2 to 4 hours of birth. Calves that have not nursed should be assisted or tube fed colostrum with a special calf feeder. Calves need 1 to 2 quarts of colostrum. Research from Colorado indicates that beef colostrum contains twice the antibodies of dairy colostrum. Dry powdered colostrum is better than no colostrum, but it is not as good as fresh or frozen colostrum from cows. Do not overheat frozen colostrum when thawing, overheating will destroy the antibodies.

Getting enough colostrum is not only important for calf survival, but for its future health and growth as well. Calves that have high antibody levels in their blood stream by 24 hours after birth are less likely to get scours and grow faster than calves with low antibody levels.

Cows (often first-calf heifers) that don't mother their calves very well often have calves that do poorly or starve to death early in life. One of the biggest mistakes producers make is not to tag calves at birth. It is a sad fact that in the US less than 50% of beef calves are tagged. A simple system is to give the calf a tag with the same number as its mother. Calves that look cold, hunched up, and droopy should be suspected of not getting enough milk. A quick check of his mom's udder (either tight and overfull or flat and milk-less) will often reveal the reason this calf looks hungry. He is! That cow and calf need to be put in a pen or barn and observed to see if the calf is nursing and if the cow accepting the calf.

Exposure. Exposure to cold and precipitation can kill newborn calves rapidly. A study of 87,285 calves born at Clay Center, Nebraska, demonstrated that even without rain or snow the percentage of calves that die due to exposure increases rapidly below 50 degrees (See graph). A little rain or wet snow makes the problem even worse. As little as 0.10 inches of precipitation on the day the calf is born can mean trouble. Calves from 2-year-old heifers are at the greatest risk.

The effects of exposure can be minimized if care is taken to ensure calves nurse soon after birth. In addition, during extremely cold or wet conditions calves may need shelter for the first 24-48 hours of life. Chilled calves should be brought in for warming and assisted in nursing if necessary. The new "calf blankets" may provide some advantage in cold dry conditions. Extra attention to newborn calves during bad weather can pay big dividends.

Metabolic disorders. The most common metabolic disorders in newborn or young calves are white muscle disease and weak calf syndrome. White muscle disease is actually a selenium deficiency which results in failure of the heart and diaphragm muscles. Prevention includes proper selenium supplementation of the cow before calving and an injection of selenium solution at birth. Many veterinarians are now recommending injections of selenium to newborn calves.

Weak calf syndrome is a protein and energy deficiency in newborns. Calves are weak and have trouble maintaining body temperature. Calves born to thin cows are at greatest risk. Weak calf syndrome can be prevented by proper cow nutrition during late pregnancy. Extra care and tube feeding of these calves may save some of them.

Scours. Calf scours can be decimating to a cow-calf operation, but proper management during the first days of a calf's life can reduce problems with scours. Making sure calves nurse or are tube fed colostrum within 4 hours of birth increases the calf's resistance to scours. Cows should calve in a clean environment. Pregnant cows should be kept out of the calving area until close to calving. Cow-calf pairs should be moved from the calving area to clean pastures by the time the calf is 3 to 5 days old, if both cow and calf are doing well. Calf shelters should be moved often, and calving pens cleaned and limed after each use.

In the last few years, several oral products have been marketed to "vaccinate" calves against scours. These products are expensive and should only be used if you have had a problem with scours, and you are doing all the above recommended management practices. Remember these products need to be administered before the calf is 12 hours old. Vaccinating cows (before calving) against E. coli appears to be worthwhile for prevention of scours.

Trauma. Trauma from being kicked, stepped on, run over or laid on kills a small percentage of calves every year. Trauma is usually a result of over crowded conditions in bedding or feeding areas. Cow-calf pairs need to be in pastures with plenty of room, and crowding of cows into calving areas should be avoided.

The extra effort producers spend on good calving management and newborn calf care will result in more calves at weaning, higher weaning weights, and less stress for producers.

Next month: Preparing for the breeding season.

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