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Basic health practices for all stages of calving season

Aleeya Laureola for Progressive Cattle Published on 06 March 2020

Where will your calves be three months from now? What about six months from now? It is never too early to start thinking about castrating calves, sending steers off to the feedlot or whatever the next step in your operation is.

Calf health is crucial at every phase in the process, and calves with the best health will be the strongest and most profitable.

Focusing on the key points for calf health can keep your operation on track and lead to a seamless process. There are three key stages of calf health from pre-birth to weaning that every operation should focus on and plan for.


What happens in the pre-birth phase influences the calf for the rest of its life. The most important thing you can do in the pre-birth phase is to ensure the dam has a good body condition score (BCS). This will impact her ability to grow a healthy calf and share needed nutrients. Cattle should have a BCS of 6 prior to calving for best results. When you regularly assess the BCS of all pregnant heifers and cows, you can make adjustments as needed to ensure animals are at a BCS of 6 prior to calving.

Adequate nutrition prior to calving will improve the quality of the colostrum calves receive and help them survive the critical first week of life. Consult your veterinarian and animal nutritionist early on for their recommendations and suggestions. Don’t forget to vaccinate before calving and pre-order the vaccines you will be needing post-birth.


In an ideal world, calving is uneventful, and everything goes as Mother Nature intended. However, reality sinks in and makes you realize preparation is key to a smooth calving season. Make sure your calving pen is ready and waiting several weeks before the first heifers and cows are due. As the first 24 hours is critical to the future health of the calf, you know that every second counts, especially when mortality rates are highest between birth and day seven.

For various reasons, some newborn calves are left motherless, while their need for colostrum ensues. When this happens, bonding your calf to another cow is the best solution but oftentimes challenging. To make this process easier, you should have a calving pen or chute with safe access for the calf to nurse while the cow is in the head gate. Ideally, your chute or calving pen should have a bottom door that can be opened for access to the udder while the cow is stabilized. This way, you’ll have better control over the situation and have a new cow-calf pairing in no time.

Biosecurity is an essential part of herd health we should never forget. Sanitize your calving pen and equipment after every use, and make sure you immediately separate sick or diseased calves and cows from the herd. Tend to sick animals last and change all clothing and boots so handlers do not become disease carriers.


The post-birth phase is busy until calves are weaned. Recent research and guidelines from Kansas State University state that castrating earlier does not negatively impact health and weight gain. Older calves are more stressed by the castration process, and trying to sell bulls instead of steers lowers their value. Castrating bull calves at a few days old is acceptable. Again, your veterinarian can help adjust your castration timeline and method for best results.

Inspecting your calves regularly will help you catch symptoms sooner when a calf is sick and prevent spreading. Your veterinarian should visit again two or three weeks after calving begins for a routine health check.

Begin creep feeding a month prior to weaning. Earlier weaning, at 150 or 170 days instead of 205 days, improves the BCS and health of cattle going into the winter months and increases efficient forage use.

Other tips for post-birth health practices are:

  1. Proper record keeping
  2. Basic fly control

Good calf health from birth to weaning is an essential part of any cattle operation. Establish a plan now, continuously strive to improve your practices and operation, and your herd will thrive.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request.

PHOTO: Preparation is key to a smooth calving season as well as maintaining calf health in every production phase. Photo courtesy of Arrowquip.

Aleeya Laureola is the content manager and cattle handling research specialist at Arrowquip. Email Aleeya Laureola.