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Preparing for calving: Are you ready for the most stressful time of year?

published: February 21st 2017
by: Kevin Gould
source: Michigan State University Extension

Calving is hands-down the most stressful time year of for the cow-calf operator. Challenging environmental conditions, increased cattle nutritional requirements and lack of sleep can lead to producers not being fully prepared. Let’s review some basic equipment and management recommendations to assist with calving. Just remember your yearlong investment in each cow and how the calving event may determine her success or failure. To prepare for potential calving problems, you may want to read this fact sheet, Calving and Handling Calving Difficulties, as a good review.

Calving Supplies

To start, inventory supply needs to happen prior to the calving season and then the needed supplies should be purchased. A solid carrying box is ideal for keeping supplies clean and handy. Suggested supplies include:

  • Isolation area for close-up cows during challenging weather condition
  • Calf delivery tools- OB chains and handles, bucket, lubricant, sleeves and disinfectant
  • Navel treatment- 7 percent tincture of iodine solution
  • Identification equipment- visual or RFID tags and tagger, or tattoo equipment
  • Mineral and/or vitamin injectables
  • Vaccines
  • Syringes and needles
  • Colostrum or colostrum replacer (not supplement)
  • Calf tube feeder (esophageal feeder)
  • Castration or dehorning tools

Handling Newborn Calves

After the calf is born, make sure the calf is breathing properly. If a calf is not breathing, immediately clear its nose and mouth of mucous or other obstructions. Stimulate breathing by vigorously rubbing of the calf’s back and by poking inside the nostrils to initiate a sneeze reflex. Never hold a calf upside down. This forces the weight of the calf’s internal organs against the lungs and may inhibit lung inflation. 

Processing the calf should be delayed until the calf has nursed. This allows for a calming affect for everyone involved. When working a newborn calf, keep track of the cow. Some cows and heifers are very protective, and some behave aggressively toward any animal or object approaching their calves. Keep dogs away from cows and heifers that have just calved. Having more than one person involved in calf processing is a good safety measure. Whenever possible, isolate the calf before processing to reduce the risk to the handler. Binding three legs of the calf can help immobilize the calf for effective processing. Watch for twins from cows that do not settle down after calving. Often, these cows may need to be palpated to assist with a second delivery.

Colostrum Nutrition 

Once a calf is breathing properly, allow it time to stand and start to nurse. Observe the calf during its first hours of life because it is critical for it to get needed colostrum during this time. Signs that a calf has nursed include wet or curled hair around teats and a shiny appearance to teats. Calves need to receive colostrum from the dam as soon as possible, preferably within the first three hours after birth (sooner in extreme weather). With each passing hour, the amount of colostrum in the dam’s milk declines, along with the calf’s ability to absorb colostrum. Newborn calves have limited immune function. Colostrum is an important source of passive immunity and helps protect the calf from diseases such as scours and pneumonia.

Stressful births can result in calves not having enough vigor to stand and nurse in a timely manner. In these cases, colostrum should be fed with an esophageal feeder. Colostrum can be milked from the cow, or colostrum replacers (not colostrum supplements) can be used for the first feeding. Feed fresh or slowly thawed frozen colostrum at 5 to 6 percent of the calf’s body weight (about 2 quarts for an 80-pound calf) within the first three hours of life. Then, feed the same amount again about 12 hours after birth.

Management

An area should be available to single-out cows during calving as needed for assistance or during adverse weather conditions. After birth, give calves access to a clean, dry bedded, draft free environment. This area should provide access where the calves can bed down away from the cows. Introduce the calves to this area within six hours of birth, and they will learn to return there after nursing. Processing calves after birth may require more than one step. Dip the calf’s naval cord in a 7 percent tincture of iodine solution as soon as possible after birth to help reduce the risk of naval infections. This is particularly important in heavily used calving areas. Castration and dehorning can be delayed a day or two to ensure the calf is up and nursing properly. Move the cow-calf pairs out to clean pasture as soon as possible to reduce disease exposure. Observe calves a minimum of twice per day. Understanding the signs of a sick calf, including rapid breathing, scours, lowered head and ears, dry muzzle, inside of mouth cold to touch, and abnormal posture, is critical. Timely treatment can mean life or death for young calves. Consult with a veterinarian on a calf scours prevention program and future calf vaccinations and processing protocols for your operation. An ounce of prevention is often worth a live, healthy calf!

Records

Records are very important.  A pocket-sized calf record book a cell phone app that you like is a convenient record keeping tool. Calf Book is an app that “allows you to track calving data, calf weaning and yearling performance.”

Record calf identification, birth date, sex, sire, calving ease and birth weight at calving for use in herd performance improvement programs. For seedstock operations, measure birth weights within 24 hours of calving with a scales system approved by your breed association. Also, record cow management issues, such as dystocia, temperament, body condition or udder issues, to aid in culling decisions after weaning. Finding a newborn calf up and nursing will surely brighten your day.

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