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Important practices for healthy, productive newborn calves

Jack C. Whittier Published on 24 January 2012

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With the current cattle market – calf prices reached an all-time high in late 2011 – having healthy, productive calves when marketing time arrives is vital to overall ranch profitability.

According to the 2007-2008 National Animal Health and Monitoring System (NAHMS) beef study, 3.6 percent of calves born alive died or were lost prior to weaning. Of these calf losses, over 31 percent of the losses occurred in the first 24 hours after birth.

Let’s explore five management practices designed to increase the likelihood that calves born this spring will be in good shape come sale time.

Prepare the cow well before calving
Healthy dams give birth to healthy calves. Managing the nutrition and grazing program of a cowherd so that cows are in body condition score of 5 to 6 at calving goes a long way toward improving the outcome at calving time.

First-calf heifers should be approximately 80 to 85 percent of their expected mature weight at first calving. What I call “The Goldilocks Principle” pertains here; cows and heifers should be neither too fat nor too thin at calving time – they should be “just right.”

There are at least two clear advantages of having dams in proper condition prior to calving. First, colostrum quality and quantity is greater in dams – particularly in first-calf heifers – that are in body condition score 5 and 6 than in dams that are in a lower body condition.

Secondly, precalving body condition has a direct impact on the length of the postpartum anestrus period. Dams in low body condition at calving take longer to return to estrus after calving than dams in adequate condition.

Thin cows are therefore less likely to rebreed. Again, this phenomenon is more pronounced in first-calf heifers.

Administering a well-designed herd vaccination program is also very important. Cows with immunity to a wide range of pathogens produce high-quality colostrum.

Minimize – or eliminate – dystocia
The impact of dystocia, or difficult births, on calf survival and overall productivity, is dramatic. Several research studies have documented the fact that calves requiring assistance at birth, particularly hard pulls, have a higher mortality rate. And if they survive, they have a greater likelihood of neonatal diseases like scours.

Dystocia rates are much higher in heifers than in cows. The most direct and effective practice for decreasing the occurrence of dystocia in heifers is the use of calving ease sires.

Selection of sires based on expected progeny differences (EPDs) for calving ease has repeatedly been shown (in both research and ranch settings) to reduce dystocia.

Therefore, one of the major ways to produce healthy, productive newborn calves is done when cows and heifers are mated.

Even when dystocia does occur, calf survival is improved by proper calving management practices, such as frequent observation during calving and by applying early, proper assistance when warranted.

Knowing when and how to intervene when calving problems arise is key to producing healthy, productive calves.

There are many sources available for learning how and when to assist at calving. It is recommended that producers review this information as calving time approaches.

Provide a good environment for calving
Environmental conditions can have a tremendous impact on calf survival. Adverse weather conditions can take a heavy toll on newborn calves.

Increased crowding can encourage the spread of diseases and loss of calves. Calving location and time of year for calving are important management considerations.

In recent years, many producers have moved calving later in the spring and even into early summer to minimize weather risks. Later calving also generally reduces the need of supplemental feeding and therefore cost of production.

0212pc_whittier_2Having a clean, dry place for cows to calve in is an important step toward reducing newborn calf losses.

Allowing cows adequate space and shelter so they can spread themselves out will reduce contamination and encourage them to select a suitable location to deliver their calf.

Of course, if a storm hits, having proper shelter – either natural or man-made shelter – is important to reduce calving losses and to allow calves to get a good start.

Assure colostrum consumption
Colostrum provides both immune protection and a concentrated, high-quality nutritional source for the newborn calf.

By assuring adequate consumption of colostrum during the first few hours after birth, many problems associated with subsequent disease can be avoided.

Absorption of immunoglobulins (Ig) should occur before the intestinal lining of the calf becomes impermeable to the large Ig proteins.

Typically, a healthy calf that consumed colostrum will undergo complete gut closure by about 24 hours after birth.

The best defense against failure of passive transfer (FPT) from dam to calf is good colostrum management. Therefore, managers should make certain every newborn calf receives an adequate amount of quality Ig soon after birth.

Beef cows tend to be good mothers, encouraging newborn calf vigor by licking and nudging. Beef cow colostrum is usually of high quality and concentrated in the critical Ig proteins.

Therefore, under most situations, newborn beef cow/calf pairs can manage colostrum consumption quite well when left unattended.

Observation of the newborn calf and the udder of the dam will help determine if the newborn has suckled.

The quality and quantity of colostrum is closely linked to the pre-calving nutrition of the dam. This is another important reason, as mentioned earlier, to have cows in good condition prior to calving.

There is also strong evidence that postweaning growth, feedlot performance and carcass quality are impacted by events early in life and, in particular, colostrum intake near birth.

Watch newborn calves closely and treat them early when needed
Scours is typically the main health concern in the newborn calf. Calf scours is a disease arising from two major causes: stress or infection.

Stress can be caused by unfavorable weather or may be related to dystocia or a congested calving environment.

Stress may also lead to increased susceptibility to infectious agents such as parasites, bacteria and viruses, the second cause of scours.

Control and prevention of calf scours has four basic components: nutrition, hygiene, colostrum and vaccination.

These components must be applied to both the dam and the calf and should be implemented in the above-listed order.

Regular observation of calves to assure they are nursing and are healthy is important. When signs of scours or other problems are noted, early detection and applying an appropriate treatment plan will reduce the severity of the disease and minimize the spread of pathogens to other calves.

Summary
As calving time approaches, it is important to prepare the cow well for delivering a healthy calf. Sire selection decisions and proper intervention will serve to minimize dystocia.

Preparing and planning for a suitable environment for both the cow and the calf during calving will increase the survival of the newborn.

Managers should assure calves consume adequate colostrum within a few hours of birth and should watch newborn calves closely and treat them early when needed.

Following these five management steps will improve the health and productivity of newborn calves.  end_mark

PHOTOS:

Top Right: Beef cows tend to be good mothers, encouraging newborn calf vigor by licking and nudging.  end_mark Staff Photo.

Bottom Right: Regularly observing calves will determine whether they are nursing well and avoiding scours. Photo courtesy of Van Newkirk Herefords.

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Jack Whittier
Beef Management Systems
and Extension Specialist
Colorado State University

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