Spring calving reminders and best practices

Valley Vet Supply
A calf’s environment at calving can increase the level of pathogen exposure, therefore increasing disease risk. This exposure to disease-causing pathogens can occur directly animal-to-animal or through contact with contaminated surfaces.

As we head into the heart of spring calving, it is important to keep in mind calving best practices for the healthiest herd possible.  

“With the help of sound management decisions and good vaccination programs, we can all strive to wean every calf born live,” said Arnold Nagely, DVM, co-founder of Valley Vet Supply. Nagely practiced food animal veterinary medicine before co-founding Valley Vet Supply in 1985, alongside fellow veterinarian, Dr. Ray Shultz.   

As a goal to work toward, “Write down on a sticky note, ‘2021: 100% healthy calves,’” encouraged beef veterinarian W. Mark Hilton, DVM, PAS, DABVP (beef cattle practice), Veterinary Technical Consultant, Elanco Animal Health. 

Below, Drs. Nagely and Hilton walk through sound reminders ahead of calving, including nutritional needs, clean calving environments, identifying calving difficulties, and overall cow and calf health best practices.  

Prioritizing Nutrition and Body Condition Score 

Nutrition is the most important aspect to achieve healthy calves and a good pregnancy rate. “Having cows in great body condition score is important so that when they calve, they have the quantity and quality of colostrum calves need. A belly full of colostrum can prevent a lot of health problems calves can experience,” Hilton said.   

Colostrum is critically important to calf health because calves are born agammaglobulinemic, meaning they have almost no antibodies to protect them against disease.

“Colostrum provides some 95% of the antibodies a calf obtains, plus a rich source of minerals, vitamins and energy – protecting newborn calves against infectious agents during the first few months of life. Colostrum can benefit overall calf health and reduce risks for calfhood diseases, increase average daily gain and more throughout a calf’s lifetime. Ensuring they receive high-quality, adequate amounts of colostrum is vital for their immediate survival and for the years to come,” said Nagely. 

Channeling his days as a professor at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, Hilton quizzed, “Who do you think is the worst person to body score your cattle?” He soon enough followed with, “Yourself.”

Hilton shared how it’s possible to be too close to the animal, thinking a cow’s a six, but really, she’s a four. On the flip side of that, a producer could think she’s a six but admittedly, she’s nearing obese and consequently going through too much feed.

“Considering a body condition score of one through nine, one being a ‘bag of bones’ and nine being ‘obese,’ I want to see cows at a 5.5 to six. Heifers are recommended to be at a 6.5 or seven,” said Hilton.  

This difference is because heifers are still growing and therefore require more calories. An adult cow needs maintenance calories to make milk and regain the weight she lost after calving; however, heifers need all that, plus they still need to gain body weight as their structure continues to grow. In fact, heifers need more calories 90 days after calving than before they calve.  

“You want to be in the ‘Goldilocks area,’ not overfeeding or underfeeding them,” said Hilton. “Ultimately, the heifer needs nutrition to not only carry and support the calf but also to support herself after calving. A good indication of a heifer with a healthy weight is that the tissue next to her tail head, which is not a muscle, will wiggle. It’s good to see that fat.”

Hilton also recommends producers work with a nutritionist to ensure their herd’s nutritional needs are appropriately met.   

Implementing a Clean Calving Environment   

A calf’s environment at calving can increase the level of pathogen exposure, therefore increasing disease risk. This exposure to disease-causing pathogens can occur directly animal-to-animal or through contact with contaminated surfaces.  

The more traditional approach to calving is in a single lot, and when the cow/calf pair is doing well, they are all moved from the pen.

“When all of the calves are born in one area, it becomes a contaminated mess,” said Hilton, who strongly encourages producers to implement the Sandhills Calving System, if at all possible, on their operation.

“You also should never calve heifers with cows at the same time – doing so can present multiple times more sickness. This is because cows have developed a natural immunity over the years because of exposure to pathogens, where the heifers haven’t. Plus, the colostrum a calf gets from a heifer won’t have the breadth of immunity that a cow’s will, so they should be separate,” he said 

How is the Sandhills Calving System different from other calving environments, and why is it recommended?

Instead of crowded calving lots, this system asks producers to use larger pastures for calving. How the University of Nebraska-Lincoln describes the system: Each two weeks, any cows not yet calved move to another pasture. And any cow/calf pairs remain in their pasture of birth.

Following the Sandhills Calving System makes for cleaner calving pastures, prevents direct contact between younger and older calves, and reduces pathogen load in the environment, which can cause diseases like scours. In this management practice, cattlemen can reduce disease risks for healthier calves. Once the youngest calves are at least four weeks old, producers are safe to commingle cow/calf pairs. 

Monitoring Calving Time  

To help identify any issues during calving, producers should anticipate seeing cows and heifers making progress every hour.

“Even a cow who has calved multiple times can experience difficulty during calving, so it is important that producers check her progress if it seems delayed,” Hilton said.  

Nagely echoed the sentiment, saying, “Once in a while, you have a malpresentation. It’s Mother Nature and sometimes it just happens, but the key is to catch it early and correct it. If the delivery process seems delayed, be sure to check for proper calf presentation earlier rather than later. She should be showing the hooves and nose and getting the calf’s head out soon. If she is gone for an hour calving, don’t wait another hour to check on her for any sort of malpresentation. The calf could be backward, or both feet could be there, but the head is turned back.”  

Once the calf is on the ground, it’s a good sign that they stand and nurse within 30 minutes. Keep in mind, calves could be delayed and sluggish to nurse during colder weather.  

Ensuring Cow and Calf Health  

Calf scours is one of the top causes of sickness and death loss in young calves, according to reports. Not only can calf scours be detrimental to a calf’s overall health, it also is a costly condition for producers, requiring treatment and increased labor costs to treat and care for calves. The condition also results in reduced calf performance.

“Calf scours is a multifaceted disease process that needs a multifaceted approach to solve the problem,” Hilton said.  

This multifaceted approach to prevent calf scours includes a clean calving environment, providing protection to the calf by vaccinating the cow against scours ahead of calving and administering calf scour prevention products to the calf at birth.  

“Ensure your heifers and cows are vaccinated against scours pre-calving. Doing so, they can build up antibody-rich colostrum that fosters protection against scours-causing pathogens, allowing them to pass on stronger, longer-lasting protection for healthier calves. Studies also have shown cross-breeding and using AI to a different breed can help reduce the risk of calf scours. There is nothing more rewarding than having a producer say he’s so tired of fighting scours, and then seeing him get the cows in better shape, implement the Sandhills Calving System, incorporate crossbreeding and vaccinate the cows against scours – and then, you check with him the next year and he responds with, ‘I don’t have any calf scours.’ To see a client go from spending $5,000 on diagnostics, treatment, and losing calves to spending only $500 on vaccines, makes me a happy veterinarian,” Hilton said.  

In addition to offering scours protection through vaccination of the cow, “There are several helpful calf scour prevention products available for use in calves directly following birth, as well,” said Nagely. “Preventing scours in newborn calves can have a lasting effect. Early scours prevention in calves can reduce the need to use treatment antibiotics later in life. If producers have questions, they can always call us and ask to speak with a Technical Service veterinarian.”  

Be sure to involve your animal health consultant and veterinarian in cow/calf health conversations. If you haven’t yet, schedule time with them to review your upcoming vaccine protocol for the year ahead, so you are more than ready.