Farming Magazine - December, 2009

COLUMNS

Beef: The Calving Toolbox

By Dr. John Comerford

After baling hay last summer, fighting mud and snow to feed the cows and paying all the bills for the year, a dead calf can be a frustrating and costly result. Preparation and timely action can help prevent some dead calves, and now is the time to get prepared.

Calving difficulty

Calving trouble can result in some bad stuff—dead calves, dead cows, increased rebreeding periods, uterine infections and others. Preparation and timely action are the keys to overcoming calving difficulty.

The following things should be handy at calving time:

People
People are first on the list because problems have to be identified in a timely and accurate way. We can talk about birth weight, calving assistance and health treatments to get a live calf, but vigilance from managers during calving seasons is the first step to success.

Obstetrical chains
Younger cows are usually the biggest problem, and even the best birth weight EPD for a bull can produce a big calf. The chains should be clean and sanitized regularly. It is also a good idea to know how to use them—broken legs in calves and other injuries happen when people do not know how to use them properly. Check with your vet to be sure you know how the chains should work.

Sanitizer
Invasive actions such as using chains and reaching in a cow’s reproductive tract are an invitation to infection. You can help prevent post-calving infection by using a sanitizer on OB sleeves, your hands and the OB chains. An iodine-based sanitizer or Nolvasan is usually recommended.

Obstetrical sleeves
To help prevent infection when assisting in a calf birth, get some OB sleeves and use them when reaching in a cow. They are available from most animal health suppliers, or you can buy a few from your vet.

Lubricant
Chains, sleeves and hands should be lubricated with KY Jelly or a similar lubricant to prevent injury to the cow or the calf when assisting a birth.

Assistance
When should you provide assistance? I worked with an extension veterinarian once who said he never saw a calf pulled too early, but he saw a lot of them pulled too late. The proper position of the calf is the front feet out with the head between them. Any other position requires timely adjustment. Physical adjustment of the calf (such as for a head or a leg back) is necessary to prevent problems, so adjust them quickly once the improper position is identified. One should not be afraid to manipulate the calf in the birth canal as long as the umbilical cord remains attached, but do so gently to prevent tearing or otherwise injuring the cow. I have seen numerous calves born upside down or completely backwards, but this kind of birth should be monitored closely. If progress is not being made within 2 hours after labor started, call the vet. In the case of a breech birth (the head and legs both turned back), call the vet immediately. This kind of adjustment usually cannot be made. When pulling a calf, remember to pull downward toward the cow’s hocks. In the case of a hip lock (the hips cannot get through the pelvic opening), rotate the calf so the widest portion of the hips is in a diagonal position to the pelvis. The pelvic opening is usually wider diagonally than it is horizontally.

Calf management

So, you have a live calf on the ground. Now, is the time to do some other things that will be much harder to do later:

Selenium injections
Many areas in Pennsylvania are selenium deficient, so selenium supplementation or injections may be needed. If the cow herd has had access to a high-quality mineral mix with significant additional selenium (1-3 PPM daily intake), the calf probably will not need an injection. The selenium level in “trace-mineralized salt” will not be enough. Injectible selenium is available from many animal health suppliers. Remember, more is not better, so follow label dosages correctly.

Ear tags and taggers
Animal identification is a key to successful records and breeding. Tattoos for purebred cattle will be much easier to accomplish in the newborn calf—it will be easier to catch!

Castration
Some producers may want to consider knife castration of male calves within a few hours of birth. There are some important advantages for castration in the very young calf, including less bleeding and less distress for the calf. As the calf gets older, there will be more highly developed nerve and vascular tissue, which results in more pain, distress and bleeding. More importantly, for the sake of manager safety, the calf will be much easier to handle and contain. A clean area to house the calf for one to two days after castration is needed, and there will be a slight reduction in weight gain to weaning, although that weight gain will be compromised by waiting too long to castrate the calf. Knife castration has been shown to be much more desirable in the young calf compared to banding because of significantly faster recovery time.

Colostrum intake
The key to a healthy calf is colostrum intake within 12 hours after birth. Colostrum intake has been shown to have a lifelong effect on the health and productivity of cattle, including carcass grades and incidence of respiratory disease. Nursing the dam within 12 hours of birth numerous times will usually be enough, but there are always exceptions. Young cows in poor condition at calving will usually have less colostrum of lower quality. Colostrum can be reserved and stored for use as a supplement at birth. It is best to reserve colostrum from your own farm rather from the dairy down the road, but that from a neighbor is better than none at all. Freeze it as fast as possible in quart-sized containers. Thaw it in a warm water bath and never put it in the microwave. A calf should get 2 quarts of stored colostrum from two feedings within 24 hours of birth—as soon after birth as possible will be best. Some calves will nurse colostrum from a bottle, but tubing the calf will be needed for many calves. Get some training in using a tube to drench the calf because drenching the lungs by mistake can cause bad things to happen.

Scour control
Second only to dystocia, scours is a primary killer of young calves. It is caused by the ingestion of bacteria from the environment, usually from dirt on the udder of the cow. Successful containment of scours is similar to most diseases—get started quickly. Allow calves to continue to nurse when treating scours, but do not mix milk with scour control medicines. Milk does not cause scours, bacteria do, and the calf needs the energy and protein from the milk. Mixing milk with some scour control medicines does not allow the milk to curdle in the calf’s stomach, which will result in intensified problems from the scours. Dehydration is the cause of death in calves with scours.

Electrolytes
At the first sign of scouring, give the calf 6-8 pints per day of an alkaline-based solution over two to four feedings. After two days, use a non-alkaline, high energy solution at 3-4 pints over two to four feedings per day. If there is no noticeable improvement after this protocol, the calf probably can no longer absorb fluids. Intravenous addition of electrolytes from your vet will be needed. Life Guard, Revive and Bio-Lyte are examples (among others) of alkaline-based solutions, and Resorb, Ionaid and Calf-Lyte are examples of non-alkaline solutions.

The worst environment for a newborn calf is in a barn where other, older calves are kept. If they must be in a barn, separate younger calves from older calves, and keep the area clean where the younger calves are housed. As calves are rotated in with older ones, clean up behind them. This process of keeping new calvings in a clean area (the Sandhills protocol) can be practiced on pastures as well by moving cows to clean pastures as they approach calving and leaving older calves out of the pasture.

Cold Stress

Canadian researchers Robinson and Young (1988) determined the best methods of warming the cold-stressed calf. They chilled calves to 86 degrees and tried four methods to revive them to the normal 101-degree body temperature:

  • Thermal insulation (a blanket)
  • Infrared lamps
  • 100-degree water bath with a 40cc ethanol drench
  • 100-degree water bath without the ethanol

In all cases, the water bath provided a 30 percent faster warm up than thermal insulation or infrared lamps. Part of the issue with blankets is that it requires the calf to produce heat that is trapped against the skin. When the calf is chilled, little heat is being produced. There was no advantage shown for the ethanol drench (similar to the whiskey drench some managers use). Caffeine from strong coffee or tea may actually help by revving up the metabolism, but great care should be taken when using caffeine in a calf at a very low temperature. Of course—don’t drown them!

Dr. John Comerford is associate professor of dairy and animal science at the Pennsylvania State University. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.