Heavy, wet spring storms can take a toll on calf crop

Apr 4, 2014
by WLJ

For many producers across the U.S., calving season has arrived and with it comes a series of rewards and challenges. Nothing warms the heart more than a cool, spring morning and the sight of a healthy calf, frolicking in the dew-covered pasture and stopping to regard you with a milk-covered face. But be warned, with the milder temperatures and the strong pull of summer that seems to be just around the corner, Mother Nature can, and will, remind us that the cold isn’t quite through with us yet.

In the West, an early spring calving season is typical, even with the threat of cold weather. Ranchers who calve in the early spring are able to offer their pairs abundant forage when quality and availability in the western U.S. are at their highest peak.

While the reward of high quality forage is fat cows and heavy weaning calves, the challenge comes when Mother Nature throws some seriously cold and snowy weather coupled with plummeting temperatures and soaking rain into the volatile spring mix. Although we are thankful for the moisture, heavy, wet spring storms can be detrimental to newborn calves. Young calves can handle quite a bit of cold, but when you factor in the rain and wet snow, it’s a whole different ball game.

The basic rule of thumb is that a wet calf is a cold calf. Calves are born covered in fluid and prior to birth, the uterine environment provides the animal with warmth. Once the calf is born, it has to dry off and produce its own internal heat. On a warm, dry day, the fluid that covers the calf will evaporate more quickly and the action of the mother’s licking tongue will stimulate blood flow. When calves remain wet and cannot get dry, their bodies will attempt to generate heat through the metabolic process, zapping them of much needed energy.

“For calves born during a typical spring storm, by the time you add in the wind chill factor and the amount of surface area a calf has for its size, the opportunity for them to get too cold is significant,” said Dr. Tom Walters, 19-year large animal vet in Elizabeth, CO.

As if the danger of hypothermic calves weren’t enough, the cold temperatures and wet environment actually encourages labor. “The scientific fact of it is, the message that it is time for the calf to be born is hormonedriven,” explains Walters.

“Cortisol is released when the calf is ready to be born and as we all know, the body also releases Cortisol in times of stress.” This is why ranchers often see a rise in calving cows in severe cold weather.

Hypothermia in newborn calves is easy to diagnose. If the temperatures plummet overnight and the animals are saturated with moisture, a new calf is probably not going to be able to ward off a chill. Calves will exhibit a weakened state and may not even be strong enough to suck. However, it is important to note that a hypothermic calf may not actually shiver.

A digital thermometer may be a rancher’s best friend on a cold, wet night. Calf tem peratures should range anywhere from 101 to 103 degrees Fahrenheit. If the calf’s temperature falls below 101 degrees, the rancher must take immediate action.

There are many cures for calves in the hypothermic state. One of the most common treatments in the western U.S. is the hot box. Longtime rancher and owner of the San Isabel Ranch in Westcliffe, CO, Michael Shields said, “We wouldn’t survive up here without our warming stall.” Shields has built a padded and insulated stall inside the calving barn with deep straw bedding and heat lamps. This structure has saved the lives of many calves in that cold mountain valley.

Another way to quickly warm a chilled calf is to vigorously massage the animal with a gunny sack or something similar. This action mimics the cleaning of a calf by its mother to increase blood flow. Shields can attribute many tired limbs to this practice. He and his wife have been known to continuously rub a calf for three to four hours to give that animal the best chance at life.

Ranchers without a hot box can also use warm water bottles, heating pads and the cab of a truck. Many have put baby calves in a box in front of a fireplace and some have even recommended soaking them in warm bathwater.

To complement these warming measures both Walters and Shields emphasize that filling the calf’s belly with colostrum as soon as possible will go a long ways in warming that animal from the inside out. Producers should always have access to colostrum for weak and chilled calves.

Luckily there are measures that can be taken to prevent death loss in the form of hypothermia. The old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” applies here, as preparedness is key. Knowing that heavy, wet spring storms are a natural component in the western ranch playbook, having certain items on hand before a storm is the fundamental necessity of saving calf lives.

“Ranchers absolutely have to make some kind of shelter available,” said Walters. “Getting that calf warm and dry is an absolute priority.”

“When we know a storm is coming in and we know it’s going to be a real humdinger, being prepared is everything,” said Shields. Using a particularly brutal spring storm in 2013 as an example, Shields describes the ranch’s best protocol. All newborn calves, those born within the last seven to eight hours are moved into the barn area where a long calving shed provides much needed shelter. Deep bedding and ample feed is also important. Being proactive is the best game plan, but Shields knows that you can only do so much before the storm strikes.

Finding cows with new calves immediately is and should be a top priority. “We are always checking,” Shields says very seriously. “We are out in those calves all day long and at least every three hours throughout the night.”

Shields knows that older calves that have had a few meals of colostrum will huddle up with their mothers in the feed line and most likely be able to weather the storm.

The most important thing for ranchers to remember is that to prevent death loss in the middle of a typical spring storm, you have to get out in the cold and check your cows. Make sure calves get warm and dry and that they get that first drink of colostrum. Calves born in those conditions will never suffer from too much care. A drench of electrolytes is always a plus and don’t be afraid to get your hands in there and rub them down.

“They’re worth the extra effort,” said Walters. “They’re worth setting that alarm clock at midnight, 2 o’clock, 4 o’clock, and 6 o’clock. You’ve got to get out there with them. They’re just worth it.” — RaeMarie Gordon Knowles, WLJ Correspondent