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Managing a successful winter calving season

Sandy Stuttgen
Calving season requires additional labor and management to ensure successful outcomes as compared to other phases of beef cow calf production.

Calving season requires additional labor and management to ensure successful outcomes as compared to other phases of beef cow calf production. Calving during Wisconsin’s winter adds environmental challenges that should be planned for to achieve a positive outcome. Before the first calf is born, examine your calving facility to help make sure everything is functioning so that midnight obstetrics may be efficiently accomplished.

Are gates and latches working properly and lanes setup to easily move calving cows to where you need them? Is the headgate working properly? Are all lights working? Are surfaces slippery or is a stockpile of salt, lime or sand needed to provide traction? Remove all the miscellaneous items that you have been storing in this area since the last calving season.

Clean, disinfect and bed calving areas and have cleaning agents, disinfectants, and bedding on hand.

Clean, disinfect and bed calving areas and have cleaning agents, disinfectants, and bedding on hand. How will dirty bedding be handled? Plan ahead to build the bedded pack as calvings progress or figure out how bedding will be removed between calvings either by skid steer or pitchfork and wheelbarrow.

Prior to the first calf being born, check calving equipment (chains, straps, calf jacks) to make sure all are clean and functioning. Inspect esophageal feeders, and calf bottles and nipples to make sure they are in good repair, replacing all worn/damaged equipment. Stock up on:

  • OB sleeves, lube
  • soap for washing your hands and the vulva
  • towels for drying and stimulating the newborn
  • calf blankets for at-risk calves
  • naval disinfection
  • colostrum replacer
  • milk replacer

Review your fresh cow and newborn calf health protocols with your veterinarian. Check your inventory of pharmaceuticals that may be needed during the calving season; discard expired products and confirm that all animal health products are being stored per their label directions.

Encourage 80% of calvings to occur during the day, between 7 am and 7 pm, by feeding close-up cattle twice daily at 11:30 am and 9:30 pm. to minimize the number of midnight calvings you will need to attend. Check close-up cattle at least three times daily. Separate close-up heifers from mature cows to better monitor them.

Heifers should deliver within one hour of the water bag appearing; mature cows within a half hour. Note the time and watch for progress when you first notice the water bag or feet. Give the cow another 15 minutes and the heifer another 30 minutes while watching from afar so as not to interrupt them. Don’t rush. Human intervention may do more harm than good but be prepared to examine her when you see she is not progressing.

Newborns should shake their heads, snort and take deep breaths. The calf’s carbon dioxide levels increase during difficult or prolonged labor. Once born, these weak calves have poor gasping and breathing ability, a slow heart rate and low core body temperature. They are slow to stand and nurse and more likely to scour.

You may need to help after difficult deliveries: towel dry the calf, tickle its nostril with a piece of straw, pour cold water in its ear or turn it from side to side.

Good mothering stimulates calves, especially weak ones. Salting the calf or sprinkling sweet feed over them will stimulate mom to lick the calf, if she is reluctant to do so. You may need to help after difficult deliveries charge: towel dry the calf, tickle its nostril with a piece of straw, pour cold water in its ear or turn it from side to side. Help exhausted mothers recover by providing them with warm buckets of water to drink. It’s been my experience that cattle do not like to put their head into deep narrow buckets; you may need to refill a shallow bucket until they are satisfied. Make the water more interesting by mixing in electrolyte or milk replacer.

Whenever possible, and especially following assisted calvings, soak the newborn’s navel in 7% iodine or other disinfectant recommended by your veterinarian. The navel is attached to the liver and wicks pathogens from the environment. Keep the calf’s environment clean and dry. Deep, clean bedding will provide protection for the calf from winter’s cold and wet environmental conditions. Think about providing bedding areas that only the calves can access when they seek to lay down between nursing.

Pre-planning goes a long way for managing the calving season, but some luck is also helpful. Good luck with your winter calving season!

Sandy Stuttgen

Sandy Stuttgen, DVM is a UW-Madison Division of Extension Agriculture Educator & Outreach Specialist

UW Extension