Don’t Panic! Preparing for Calving Season is Simple and Easy*

Don’t Panic! Preparing for Calving Season is Simple and Easy*

Baby calf
As a cow-calf producer, your main goal shouldn’t be to just have calves hit the ground alive but have calves that are thriving in their first 48 hours of life. Photo credit Troy Walz.

It’s the most wonderful, busy time of the year! No, Christmas is almost two months past. We are entering spring calving season! This is the time we get a first look at the outcome from the long thought-out decisions made on sire selection.

Every producer loves seeing that brand new little creature hit the ground, so they can begin to admire their hard work and breeding selection. However, now the real work begins: keeping that little beast alive. So, I went to work asking cattle veterinarians and animal science Ph.D.’s across the country, “What are your top recommendations to prepare for calving season?” In this article I plan to assemble the information I gathered and relay it to you.

First things first: Establish a Veterinary Client Patient Relationship (VCPR) with a veterinarian. The purpose of the VCPR is for your vet to know your cattle, know your situation, and know your cattle’s health/disease challenges. You will also want a vet who is willing to come out to your operation in the middle of a snow storm at 2:00 a.m. to assist you with pulling a calf, if you need it. One of the worst things that could happen is needing a vet and not having one or having one not familiar with your operation.

As a cow/calf producer, things to consider long before calving is health and nutritional status of your brood cows. You will want a vaccination protocol in place and being implemented against high-risk and highly catastrophic disease. You should work with your veterinarian when developing your vaccination protocols.

Another health threat to consider is the environment in which your calves will be born. Of course, clean and dry areas are the goals, but as you progress through calving season in the same pasture or paddock, microbe loads may begin to increase, especially on the cows’ teats, where the calves will acquire their first meal. Always follow good biosecurity practices on your operation to ensure the health of your livestock. Consult with your veterinarian on developing calving biosecurity protocols.

Some nutritional considerations producers should focus on include body condition scores (BCS) and mineral status of brood cows. Do your brood cows have a BCS of 5-6? Thin cows have more dead and stillborn calves, as well as poor colostrum. However, over-conditioned cows (especially heifers) can have increased instances of dystocia.

One mineral vital to brood cows prior to calving is Selenium. In some geographic regions, it is found in insufficient amounts in forages and feed. If newborn calves are deficient in Selenium, they can lack a suckle reflex at birth and initiative to nurse.

Selenium is also important in the prevention of white muscle disease. Selenium supplements are available for cows and can be a great addition to mineral supplementation. They should be given a month prior to calving. You can also use an injectable Selenium on calves. However, it could take a few days to be fully absorbed by the calf before you see an effect. One important thing to note is excess selenium can be toxic and fatal. Because of this fact, selenium injectables require a veterinary prescription, and your veterinarian can help you decide if, when, and how to supplement.  

Another consideration prior to calving is safety for the animal and yourself or other personnel. Make sure you have a plan in place for how cows will be handled if they need help. Have a sturdy place to tie the cow’s head, with a gate that can be swung to restrain or swing open if she goes down when assisting. Tie the head down low so if she goes down she’s not hung up.

Next is the “paperwork.” First, you should have a tentative calving calendar based on preg-check data to help you know which cows you should be watching closely based on due dates. You can also sort your cattle into groups based on expected calving dates.

Second, you should have a record keeping system. Not only does a record keeping system help you identify pairs, it also allows you to make other notes such as calf sire, calving ease, calf birth weight, and when the time comes calf weaning weight.

Another important note you could record is what kind of mother the cow was, which helps when culling decisions need to be made. Additionally, at calving is the perfect time to evaluate and score cow udders. Scoring cows at this time reflects the physical condition and potential nursing challenge a newborn calf may be facing as it first tries to nurse. It’s also a good time to identify cows that will be a problem in the future.

Another good idea is to write down your calving standard operating procedure. When you have your procedure down on paper, you see what you need to have ready so that you’re not hunting supplies or equipment at the last second. It is also useful for others if the primary “calving manager” is not available to assist.

Now that we have the paperwork out of the way, what do my colleagues recommended to have on hand? Prepare for the worst! It’s better to be prepared and have everything you need than be missing crucial supplies.

The following is a list of equipment my sources recommend having on hand:

  • Ear tags
  • Functioning tagger
  • A couple tagging pens
  • Scales
  • Cow halter
  • Calf Jack (Know how to use it properly and safely)
  • OB chains
  • OB Lube
  • OB gloves
  • Colostrum replacer/supplement
  • Milk replacer
  • Milk tuber
  • Supplements/Electrolytes (Bo-Se or Mu-Se)
  • Iodine (naval dip)
  • Vaccines

Next, it is important for producers entering the calving season to understand the three phases of calving and know when to provide assistance during calving. Work with your vet to develop some agreed-upon measures (ideally objective ones) to determine if intervention is needed. These “rules for intervention” differ among producers and veterinarians, but examples of some good rules of thumb include:

  1. If stage 1 of labor (the first visible sign of labor) lasts more than 8 hours; intervene
  2. If the water sac has been out (stage 2) for 2 hrs. and the cow is not trying; intervene
  3. If a cow has been trying for more than 30 minutes but has made no progress; intervene
  4. If a cow has quit trying for over a 15 – 20-minute period after having made progress; intervene
  5. If a cow or calf is showing signs of distress/fatigue (calf swollen tongue, cow rectal bleeding); intervene
  6. Based on observation the delivery appears to be abnormal based on a problem with calf presentation, position, or posture; intervene
  7. If fetal membranes are not passed by the cow by 12 hours post-calving; intervene

If a calf does need to be pulled, it’s a good idea to have a lot of OB lube on hand, including a small rubber hose that enables pumping lube into the birth canal when providing assistance. Lube should be used extensively prior to starting to pull a calf, to reduce friction in the birth canal. However, powdered lube that water is added to (often a dry polyethylene polymer with a dispersing agent) should NOT be used – if a female ultimately needs a C-section, and this type of lube exits the uterus and enters the peritoneal cavity (body cavity), severe illness or death of the cow will result.

Remember the five-minute rule: If you have been manipulating the calf for five minutes with no progress, do something different. It is important to know when to call your veterinarian for professional help to prevent the loss of calf, cow, or both. Remember, it is better to call too early than too late.

Ok, so the calf is on the ground and alive, what now? It is best to let the cow do her thing first to allow her to bond with her new calf. However, sometimes you may need to intervene.

If you are present when the calf is born, and the calf is not breathing, there are a few techniques can be done to stimulate the calf to breathe. First, Put the calf on its chest, with its back legs pulled towards its ears. This allows for maximal oxygen perfusion of both lungs and opens the upper airway. It also requires the least amount of effort to move the diaphragm. DO NOT HANG THE CALF UPSIDE DOWN! To stimulate a calf to breathe you can simply poke inside the nose with a long piece of hay or pinch the nose somewhat forcefully, like a nose lead.

Next, no matter your case or location, calves need to receive some colostrum (first milk). Research has shown that as time passes without colostrum intake by the calf, calf survival decreases. Although colostrum supplements can be purchased, some producers have found it best to keep frozen colostrum on hand for instances when the cow refuses the calf or has no milk. The frozen colostrum can come from a cow that had a calf born dead or from a local dairy.  Using colostrum from another herd does present risk of introducing a disease into your herd, and your vet can help you assess the risks versus the benefits in individual situations.   

Remember, it is best to use colostrum from a cow in a similar environment so that the colostrum contains Immunoglobulin G (IgG) similar to its mother’s, which would ward off any diseases subject to the calf. When reheating the colostrum, make sure you do not overheat and destroy any of the IgGs present in the colostrum. Never heat colostrum in a microwave; it will damage the protein and the IgG and render it inactive. If using a colostrum supplement, it is recommended that it contains a total of 150 grams of IgG, ideally in 2qt of total volume.

Other considerations for post-natal care include dipping the naval in strong iodine, selenium injections, internasal respiratory vaccines, oral antibodies/vaccines for scours, and vitamin supplementation. These recommendations are regional and herd dependent. You should work with your veterinarian to develop a post-natal procedure for your operation.

There are a few common causes of slow, unaggressive calves at birth. Oxygen deprivation from a difficult birth and cold weather are two of the most common. For both, caffeine can be a great tool to make the calf more active.

It is recommended they get about 200 mg/day of caffeine, which can be given in two 100 mg doses at two 12-hour intervals or all at once. A “5 Hour Energy” has 100-200 mg/caffeine per dose and is available in almost any convenience store. Buying a few before calving season can be handy and cheap.

Energy and warmth are also necessary to get a calf going. Be sure it is drinking enough and supplement colostrum or milk replacer after the first feeding if necessary. If the calf’s temperature is less than 100°F, try to warm it up. If this seems to be a recurring herd problem and it is not that cold out, examine vitamin A and selenium levels in brood cows. Remember if you inject these at birth, it will still take a few days to be fully absorbed by the calf before you see an effect.

Finally, if you continue to suffer from significant calf losses due to severe weather (i.e. hypothermia, scours, respiratory) and/or are having trouble maintaining body condition and reproductive performance in your cows, you should consider moving your calving season to a warmer/dryer time of year that more closely matches a cow’s energy requirements with available forage. Calves born during late spring and summer are often lighter and are born easier, thus the rate of dystocia and calf sickness often reduces drastically. And, feed costs to overwinter cows will be reduced.

As a cow-calf producer, your main goal shouldn’t be to just have calves hit the ground alive but have calves that are thriving in their first 48 hours of life.

Remember: Always consult a veterinarian about protocols you should follow on your operation.

*These recommendations were adapted from feedback provided by the following:
Halden Clark, DVM, University of Nebraska – Lincoln
Jason Ahola, Ph.D., Colorado State University
Robert Mortimer, DVM, Colorado State University (Retired)
Christine Navarre, DVM, Louisiana State University
Christopher A Connelly, DVM, Centre Herd Health Services
Daniel Kniffen, Ph.D., Penn State University
Marissa Fisher, University of California - Davis

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