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Calving in the cold weather

Robin Reinhold Molly Reinhold stoops to pick up a newborn calf
COLD CALF: Molly Reinhold, 21, of Lonetree Ranch, Sturgis, S.D., stoops to pick up a newborn calf out of a snowdrift in December 2016.
How three Dakota ranchers get newborn calves through the toughest winter weather.

Dakota ranchers Matt Tastad, Rolette, N.D.; Mark Beitelspacher, Bowdle, S.D.; and TJ Gabriel, Midland, S.D.; all start calving between January and March. They do several things to protect newborns during winter’s worst weather.

Windbreaks and bedding
“Newborn calves are pretty tough if they are out of the wind,” Tastad says.

He and his family operate McCumber Angus Ranch in the north central part of the North Dakota, just a half hour’s drive from the Canadian border. They begin calving in late January.

They use windbreaks to protect cows and calves from winter winds. They put fresh bedding down in front of windbreaks every other day depending on the weather. For calves, straw bedding may reduce frozen ears, tails and feet.

South Dakota State University Extension cow/calf field specialist Adele Harty says that straw is the best type of bedding and should be deep enough to cover the calf’s legs when they are lying down.

Harty also emphasizes it’s important to have sufficient windbreak area so calves don’t get trampled. Multiple windbreaks may be necessary for larger herds, she says.

Healthy newborn calves should maintain a body temperature of 101-102 degrees F. “If a newborn calf is wet, it’s more likely to become chilled,” Harty says. If a calf does become chilled, it’s important to monitor if the calf is warming up. Measuring the calf’s rectal temperature is the best way to monitor its core temperature. To help weak or compromised newborn calves improve their body temperature, Harty suggests drying them off immediately either using blankets or gunny sacks — even putting them in the pickup. If near a barn, heaters, hair dryers or a warming box can be helpful. Providing straw or other bedding can also help reduce heat loss.

Get them up
Gabriel and his wife, Jeanine, and their young family begin calving January

“The faster that calf gets up the better,” he says. To help them, he sprinkles “calf-claimer” powder on any sluggish newborn. “It helps make the cow a little more aggressive when licking calves off and getting calves up to nurse.” It also helps ensure that cows claim their calf.

Calves should stand within one hour of being born and be actively suckling within two hours, Harty says.

Most producers recognize that colostrum is essential for the immunoglobulins and immunity building it provides to calves. But equally important is that colostrum provides fluid to the newborn calf, which helps increase blood volume and thereby improves circulation for warmth, according to Harty. Colostrum also provides the calf with an important source of energy, which helps calves regulate their body temperature.

Herd health
Beitelspacher believes in a strong herd health program for a successful calving season.

Six weeks prior to calving in early March, all cows are given an annual scour prevention shot. Heifers receive an additional booster shot. At birth, calves are given a seven-way clostridium vaccine. Beitelspacher believes the vaccination program has boosted calf health and helped calves get through any late spring blizzards.

Tastad also administers a seven-way vaccine to calves at birth and gives calves a probiotic paste orally and administers a nasal spray for respiratory protection from health issues like pneumonia.

In his operation, Gabriel gives every calf born a Vitamin B Complex shot to get its growth off to a good start. He dips iodine on every navel to minimize infections as well.

Gabriel puts lime down in the pens of his calving barn each time he cleans them and at the end of the calving season. This helps prevent the spread of any diseases.

Tastad also likes to use a vitamin-rich Nutri-Dench product to give sluggish calves a boost. “It gets in their bloodstream pretty fast,” he says.

Beitelspacher says another key to their calving success is keeping a watchful eye on the herd — checking them often. If temperatures drop below 20 degrees F, or if a winter storm hits, they check the cows every 2 hours and also keep an eye on cows that are due to calve later in the season. “The stress of a storm can have cows calving earlier than expected,” Beitelspacher says.

Beitelspacher splits his herd into two groups. First and second calvers comprise one herd, and mature cows comprise the other. This allows for targeted feeding of the younger cows that may need additional feed during cold weather spells, and allows monitoring of the younger females more closely for calving problems.

They feed cows hay at sundown. “When the cows eat and lay down to digest, we’ve found they are less likely to calve at night,” he says.

More advice
Other steps ranchers and university Extension specialists say can be taken to protect newborn calves during cold weather include:

• Removing snow with a bucket loader from areas where cattle congregate to minimize future mud problems. Bedding in these areas where snow has been scraped away may also encourage cattle to lie down.

• Not tagging calves soon after birth. The tag may hinder blood flow to the ear, which would make it colder and more likely to freeze when temperatures and windchill are below zero.

• Using calf huts to get calves out of the cold. Extra management is needed prevent the spread of disease when using huts. They should be seeded down with a scour-preventing agent, and fresh, dry bedding should be added regularly. Cows should not be able to access the hut.

• Midway through the calving season, moving cows that have not calved to a new, clean environment to reduce the transfer of disease to newborn calves.

Gordon writes from Whitewood, S.D.

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