and Bio Technology Center
Contrary to what the weather feels like, spring is fast approaching in the northern hemisphere. Regardless of how long Jack Frost wants to stick around, Mother Nature doesn't stop her normal process of renewal, regrowth, and reproduction. Our cows are still going to calve, and generally they calve when the ambient temperature and environmental conditions are not in our favor.
Some producers are already well under way in their calving season. Producers who often calve in January and February are already prepared for avoiding and/or dealing with hypothermia and frostbite conditions in the neonatal calves.
The extreme, unrelenting cold temperatures that have dominated this winter's weather patterns have made these preventative measures vitally important.
The keys to calf survival in extreme cold are: 1) getting the calf born quickly, 2) getting energy into the calf, in the form of high quality colostrum, and 3) getting the calf completely dry.
A good mother cow can take care of the first two critical steps, even in temperatures as low as -20 to -30 degrees, provided there is no wind chill.
However, the calf has to be placed in a warm room, or warming box, until it is dry. This can often take 7-10 hours. In this time frame, it is a good practice to place the calf with its mother after a few hours, and allow it to nurse for 15-20 minutes before placing it back in the warmer or warm room.
A hair dryer or blower will speed the process, but it is important to be sure that the calf is thoroughly dry, and there is no evidence of dampness in the hair coat, especially next to the skin.
Before calves start hitting the ground, it is a good idea to do an inventory of supplies. First and foremost, there should be an adequate supply of colostrum or colostrum substitute on hand. The best colostrum is that from an older cow that originated in the herd. She has been exposed repeatedly to most of the pathogens on the farm, and therefore her colostrum contains high levels of a very diverse population of antibodies and immune system cells.
If possible, every effort should be made to collect colostrum from these older cows, to be frozen and stored, for future use.
Beware of cows that may have Johne's disease. The Johne's organism can be transmitted via colostrum to the calf. If you have or suspect you have a Johne's disease problem, colostral supplements may be a better option for you.
In order to facilitate record keeping, it is a good idea to have your ID system in place prior to the start of the calving season. ID numbers and sequencing should be determined and tags numbered, so that when the calves are born, the proper ear tags can be put in their ears.
The unprepared producer might try to write tags as the calves are born, which can result in number duplications, skipped numbers, and sometimes highly smudged tags that are illegible, because the ink was not dry before the tag was placed in the calf's ear. It is also very important to verify that the tag applicator will work for the tags that were purchased. A pet peeve of many producers is a tagger that won't work when it looks like it should.
For some producers, the extent of the record keeping process at calving is limited to birthdates and IDs. Other producers, typically seedstock producers, will also collect birth weight, calving ease, and calf vigor records for reporting purposes to their respective breed associations. In this case, it is important to have an accurate scale and fully functional system to weigh the newborn calves.
It is also vitally important to have a safe, functioning chute or head catch to restrain a cow, in the event that she has problems calving.
Calving problems (dystocia) can come in many forms, from malpresentation (breach birth), multiple births, oversized calves, and deformed calves, to name a few. Quiet and solid restraint is absolutely critical when dealing with problem calvings.
It is also important to have a good set of OB chains (or straps) and handles, if assistance is required. The description of the ideal OB chain would address: the strength of the material, the gentleness of the material on the cow and the calf, greater distribution of pressure on the calf's extremities, and greater application of force (within reason) for extraction. Consider these factors when purchasing OB equipment.
No producer plans to have calving problems, but every producer should have, and know where, the calf jack is. More importantly, the producer should know how to properly use a calf jack.
A veterinarian once said that the calf jack can be the most valuable tool you'll ever carry on your truck, but in the wrong hands, it can be dangerous.
Proper technique for using a calf jack is beyond the scope of this article, and won't be discussed here. However, the astute producer will educate him/herself, on proper technique, so that, in the event that it needs to be used, they will know how to use it while doing minimal damage to the cow and calf.
While preparing for calving, preparation should also include herd rotation. Calf health becomes very important during the first three weeks of the calves' lives.
Calving clean cows out on clean areas and pastures will do wonders for the health of the calves in their first month of life. Often space and facilities are limiting factors, and we all can't be set up with the Sand Hills Calving System. But any variation on the theme, that puts close-up cows on clean areas to calve, will contribute to a healthier calf crop and heavier weights at weaning.
Every bit of preparation that we do prior to calving will help facilitate the process, help deal with issues more effectively, and will ultimately result in greater returns. These returns can be appreciated as a higher weaning percentage, improved calf health and heavier weaning weights, and even increased pregnancy rates in the subsequent breeding season.
For more information on this topic, please contact the University of Minnesota Beef Team at www.extension.umn.edu/beef.