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Calving season: A little planning can go a long way

Christopher Clark for Progressive Cattleman Published on 22 December 2017
beef cows in winter

As we move into the new year, it will be worthwhile to spend a little time planning and preparing for the upcoming calving season. Excellent animal husbandry, deliberate preparation and common sense can go a long way to promote a successful calving season.

The importance of proper nutrition cannot be overemphasized. There is tremendous fetal growth during the third trimester of pregnancy, particularly during the last 45 days of pregnancy. Nutrient requirements of the cow will increase accordingly. Nutrient requirements will also increase with cold weather, wind, moisture, etc. Make sure you are providing adequate nutrition to meet the great energy demands of fetal growth and winter weather. Adequate nutrition is critical not only for the health and rebreeding success of the mother, but also for the health and vigor of the calf.

One way to analyze the nutritional status of the cow is to monitor body condition score (BCS). It is worthwhile to systematically and consistently evaluate body condition scores every two weeks in order to notice small changes in condition and hopefully prevent any severe loss of condition. Ideally, cows should enter the calving season with a BCS of 5. For young cows and heifers (2- and 3-year-olds), it is usually recommended they enter the calving season with a BCS of 5.5 to 6.

It is critical to assess BCS now and adjust nutrition accordingly. Nutritional demands will continue to increase through the third trimester of pregnancy and into early lactation. It will become more difficult and more expensive to improve body condition as they move and alter into pregnancy and as they enter early lactation.

Beyond nutritional support, what can you do to promote calf health and survivability? According to the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) 2007-08 beef cow-calf survey, calving-related problems and weather-related problems account for over 50 percent of neonatal calf death loss. Of those claves that are born alive but die prior to 3 weeks of age, 25.7 percent die from calving-related problems and 25.6 percent die from weather-related problems. Additionally, 18.6 percent die of unknown causes, 14 percent die of gastrointestinal disease, 8.2 percent die of respiratory disease and 6.2 percent die of injury or predation.

It seems plausible that calving-related and weather-related problems may contribute to a few of the injuries, infectious diseases and unknown causes of death. The take-home message is proper management of parturition and protection from weather extremes can save a tremendous number of newborn calves.

Review your breeding records, pregnancy check results and bull data to estimate the calving period and predict potential dystocia problems. Review the stages of parturition and guidelines regarding when and how to assist with the birthing process. To facilitate better supervision of calving, consider feeding pregnant females in the evening to encourage daytime calving. Have your veterinarian’s phone number readily available. Put some thought into how to protect cows and calves from weather extremes.  Weather risk and associated mitigation strategies will vary depending on location, climate, facilities and calving season. Bedding, windbreaks, calving barns, calving pastures, etc. can all be helpful depending on your situation.

Additionally, spend a little time this winter preparing your calving area and equipment. Make sure your calving facilities are clean, dry and protected from the weather. Try to prepare some sort of maternity pen with a functional headgate, crowd gate, etc., to make things easier when you do have to assist with calving. Have plenty of bedding readily available. Make a list of the necessary supplies and be sure to have everything on hand.

Some important supplies include OB sleeves, chains or straps, calf jack, towels, halters, feeding tube, light source, OB lube, soap, water, bucket, calving book, etc. Finally, plan ahead for problems and unique situations. Consider how you might warm a cold calf, where you might house a calf with scours, where the veterinarian might be able to perform a caesarean section, etc. A little planning can go a long way.  end mark

Christopher Clark
  • Christopher Clark

  • Beef Field Specialist
  • Iowa State University
  • Email Christopher Clark

PHOTO: Make sure you are providing adequate nutrition to meet the great energy demands of fetal growth and winter weather. Staff photo.