Take the stress out of calving season this fall

Oct 15, 2010
by DTN

In his 50 years of practice, veterinarian Fred Ingle has seen just about everything. Still, there is one bovine delivery complication that stands out. “I reached in and felt two heads,” recalls the Clermont, GA, practitioner. Not twins, but two heads on one calf.

With Ingle’s help, the cow made it through delivery. The calf didn’t survive, but it did find a home at the Smithsonian Institute.

Hopefully, you won’t encounter a two-headed calf during calving season, but it does pay to be prepared for the unexpected. And preparation all starts with the cow.

Bump up nutrition

“During the last 90 days of gestation, the heifer or cow needs plenty of protein and energy,” says Charlie Stoltenow, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian. “I can’t stress how important this is. Protein is directly related to colostrum quality and calf vigor. The calf needs to be able to bounce up and get off the cold ground.”

Stoltenow says those last 90 days of gestation are known as fetal programming and affect the calf not only at birth, but also through weaning and into the feedlot or puberty. “This is no time to be stingy with protein or energy,” he emphasizes.

Don’t forget a high-quality mineral mix, says veterinarian Ingle. “Down here, from mid-October through mid- April, cows should have access to high-magnesium minerals—14 percent—to prevent grass tetany.”

Immunize heifers and cows

“If a cow or heifer is immunized against IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSV and lepto, that immunity is passed on through the colostrum,” says Ingle. “If you have a scours problem in your calves, you can eliminate almost 100 percent of it by doing that.

“The vaccinations are so good now and only cost around $1 to $4 a dose. You can’t treat a calf for that.”

He recommends vaccinating the females 60 days prior to calving, preferably at preg-check time to pre vent an extra trip through the chute. Clean calving areas Move the pregnant females into fresh, clean pasture prior to calving. Make sure the pasture has access to a corral or squeeze chute in case any of the cows or heifers need help. Time your seasons Aim for controlled breeding and calving seasons. It’s hard to implement other recommended practices if your cows and heifers are calving year-round instead of as a group. Frequent checks to monitor labor and delivery are even harder to keep up all year.

Take a refresher course

“One of the best things you can do is take a short course on delivering calves,” says Stoltenow. “Then you can recognize the stages of labor. If the heifer or cow is having dystocia, you can assess whether you can handle it yourself or need to get help. Time is of the essence when the calving process starts.”

Ingle agrees the worst thing is to wait too long before helping or getting help.

Besides lowering the calf’s chances of survival, the cow or heifer is in more danger, too. “If she is already toxic from a decomposed calf, she can’t live.”

He recommends checking cows and heifers at least twice a day during calving season. Even if you’ve used bulls known for calving ease, there is always the chance of a breech birth, a deformed calf, or a leg getting hung in the birth canal.

Calving kit

The moment a cow or heifer is having trouble delivering a calf is not the time to realize you lack the tools to help her. Here is a list of the basics you’ll want to have on hand before calving season begins.

1. OB chains and a calf jack plus the knowledge needed to use them.

2. Soap and water and/or a disinfectant to clean her up before you enter her birth canal, as well as to wash your hands.

3. A lubricant to make entering the birth canal easier, as well as gloves and paper towels.

4. Iodine to apply to the calf’s navel.

5. Colostrum and a feeding tube or bottle. “Preferably the colostrum is from your own herd,” says Stoltenow. He says this will have the antibodies needed to protect calves from diseases in your herd and area. If you can’t get and freeze colostrum from one of your own cows, buy commercial colostrum.

If the calf can’t or won’t nurse and you have to feed it with a stomach tube, Stoltenow says, “make sure the tube goes straight into the esophagus and not into a lung or you’ll lose the calf. The first couple of hours, you need to get at least a quart of colostrum in the calf and two quarts in the first six hours.”

6. A cold-weather game plan. After helping ranchers cope with calving in blizzard-plagued North Dakota, Stoltenow has more experience than he wants in cold-weather calving. He says there are two hard and fast rules. “Calves need to be out of the wind and they need to be kept dry.

“During wet weather, provide some type of cover or some way to dry them. I’m a big proponent of bedding. It can keep them dry and get them off the cold ground. If a calf won’t get up, have some way to warm him—a calf warmer or wool blanket. Have it ready ahead of time.

“When it is 2 a.m. and 25 degrees below zero, that is no time to be thinking about what to do.”

Stoltenow continues, “Provide windbreaks, fences, tree lines or hay bales. Hypothermia probably kills more calves in the first two days of life than any other thing. It leads to more problems. He may not be able to absorb colostrum as well and that makes him more susceptible to scours or pneumonia.”

There is also the danger of frostbite. “If they lose the tips of their ears or their tails to frostbite that is one thing, but if they start losing their hooves, it is disastrous.” — DTN