The success of calving season starts long before the arrival of the firstborn calf.
USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System conducted a beef cow-calf study in 2017 and 2018. The study involved producers in 24 states, including Missouri, representing more than 70% of beef cows in the U.S.
Results from the questionnaire found nearly all calves (97.7%) were born alive. The percentages of calves born alive to heifers and to cows were similar across herd sizes, but a higher percentage of calves were born alive to cows.
Since 55.6% of calves were born in February, March or April, for most producers, calving is right around the corner. Now is the time to prepare.
Keep cows in condition
Producers should walk through the spring-calving herd and determine animals’ body condition scores.
Beef cattle are scored from 1 (thin, emaciated) to 9 (fat, obese). Mature cows need a BCS of 5, while first-calf heifers need to be at a score of 6 going into calving.
If cows are not in calving condition, a supplement with higher-quality feed is needed so animals can gain condition prior to calving. In most situations, if 20% of cows have a BCS of 3 or 4 and the other 80% have a BCS of 5 or greater, then separate and feed accordingly.
Feeding cows and heifers prior to calving does not cause calving difficulties. Increasing BCS from 4 to 6 does not increase dystocia rates but will increase rebreeding rates from 50% to 96% (in a 65-day breeding season). Producers should also make sure plenty of feed is readily accessible near the calving area.
Stock delivery area
Calving equipment and supplies need to be obtained and gathered into one location prior to the start of the season.
The calving barn and equipment should be clean and in good working condition. A calving toolbox or bucket should include a clean bucket, disinfectant, liquid soap, lubricant, obstetric gloves, chains, handles, paper towels or towels, and calf ear tags and tagger. A calf jack is beneficial if it is used properly.
Producers also should make sure medications and colostrum are on hand.
Colostrum replacement or supplement
A calf with inadequate colostrum intake is 10 times more likely to get sick or die than a calf that gets enough colostrum.
When it comes to colostrum, remember the three Q’s: quality, quantity and quickly; or the five C’s: colostrum, calories, comfort, cleanliness and consistency.
Colostrum is the first milk and contains antibodies, energy, and immunological cells and compounds. The immune system response of calves is competent at birth; however, it has no antibodies to fight infection.
Colostrum must be ingested by newborn calves within six hours of birth to acquire satisfactory passive immunity. Hand-feeding colostrum may be necessary for calves that experienced difficult births or have not nursed within the first four hours.
Like the product names indicate, colostrum replacers are used to replace colostrum, meaning they are used instead of colostrum; supplements are used to supplement, or used in conjunction with, maternal colostrum intake.
Help deliver calves
A knowledge of normal parturition, or the birthing process, is imperative to know what is abnormal.
Producers should be familiar with the stages of labor and the length of each stage, the difference between cows and heifers, the different calf presentations, and how to assist if needed. Producers should not rely on internet searches to answer questions when time is of the essence to get a live calf on the ground.
Reviewing when and how to assist a cow having a difficult birth and knowing when to call a veterinarian for assistance is a must for a successful calving season.
Normal delivery should be completed in one to two hours after the water sac appears. In normal presentations, the front feet should appear after the water bag, and the hoof will be down. If a first-calf heifer has not calved within one to one and a half hours after the water sac, help may be needed.
A successful calving season begins at breeding with the selection of the bull and continues with proper nutrition and management during gestation, and especially three to six months prior to the start of calving. Now is the time to prepare mentally and physically for the arrival of baby calves.
For more information, contact your local University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist.
Conrow is a University of Missouri Extension livestock field specialist. She writes from Fayette, Mo.