The calving season in the mid-Atlantic has kicked off, but are you really prepared for it? Here are a few of the important things to have handy for a successful calving season.
A heifer pasture alarm clock
Research shows that more than 90 percent of calving difficulties will be found in first-calf heifers. It is a double loss when that heifer loses a calf. First, the bred heifer may be the most valuable cow on the farm right now. Prices for commercial-bred heifers have topped $1,500 in many places. If you raised her yourself, she still had an economic value of at least $1,500 to your enterprise. On a cash basis, the development, breeding and feeding the heifer has taken two years and over $1,000 in most cases. Secondly, we can show it takes more than six calvings to make up for a lost calf for any female in the herd, so the only real value she has after losing a calf is beef. While the price of beef is pretty high now, there is far less value in beef than the bred heifer.
Calving difficulty comes in several forms, including abnormal presentations, calves that are too big and hiplock.
About 5 percent of calving will be an abnormal presentation, and many of these will not result in a difficult birth. Many calves can be born normally upside down or backwards. A normal calving with the head between the front legs can become a problem when one of the legs is back. This can be fixed in many cases by manually pushing the calf back until the leg can be pulled forward.
Breech births and more than one leg back require a vet if possible, because a C-section may be needed or the calf may actually have to be cut into pieces in utero to save the cow. Get some instruction using OB chains because legs can be broken if they are not used properly. Disinfect them and your hands with a chlorine or iodine-based disinfectant. Nolvasan and iodine scrub are available at most livestock supply stores.
When extracting a calf, remember to pull downward and not straight back from the cow. In the case of a hiplock, rotate the calf about 45 degrees to allow the hips to pass the pelvic opening at its widest point (the pelvic opening is generally widest at a diagonal from top to bottom).
Ingestion of the first milk available after calving is essential to survival of the calf. Newborn calves have very little concentration of serum immunoglobulins at birth, and it has been shown that failure to provide the immunoglobulins through colostrum will result in greater incidence of infectious disease (Gay, 1983.)
Several factors influence the quality (immunoglobulin mass) of colostrum. These factors include the number of milkings prior to colostrum feeding of the calf, dam breed, first-milking colostrum volume, parity of the cow, and milk fat production of the cow.
Farmers in the mid-Atlantic usually have a dairy nearby where colostrum may be available. Try to get colostrum from young cows and/or Jersey cows so the immunoglobulins are not diluted by the volume of milk produced and the milk fat could be higher. When feeding stored colostrum, thaw it in warm water and do not use a microwave. It will usually take half a gallon of colostrum to get the best results. If the calf will not nurse a bottle, use a stomach tube.
It is absolutely necessary to get colostrum in the calf within 24 hours of birth, preferably within 12 hours. Cows can be vaccinated for calf scours prior to calving, but this is a passive immunity dependent on the calf getting a good dose of colostrum.
Calves are not born with calf scours, but acquire the bugs that cause it soon after birth. The first "firewall" to prevention is finding ways to prevent the acquisition of the bacteria and viruses that cause it. The bugs most responsible for calf scours - E. coli, salmonella, rotavirus and coronavirus - are normal inhabitants of the GI tract of many adult cattle or are found in the environment. Cows that have dirty teats from where they walk and lay down are the biggest culprits. The primary reason calves die from scours is dehydration. Scouring calves should be isolated from calving areas, but this may often be the only area available to protect newborn calves from cold, wind and wet weather. Drenching calves with fluids will need to be done every three to four hours to be most effective, and the earlier the process starts in a calf after contracting scours the better. There are good commercial products available to treat scours. It is imperative to follow the label directions for mixing the material with water and for administration. When no other oral electrolyte rehydration product is available a "home brew" can be effective.
Some examples from a University of Nebraska publication:
1. 1 can beef consommé, a package of fruit pectin, 2 tsp. low sodium salt, 2 tsp. baking soda and 2 quarts warm water.
2. 1 can beef consommé, three cans warm water and 1 tbs. baking soda.
3. 1 tbs. baking soda, 1 tsp. salt, 8 ounces of Karo syrup and enough warm water to make 1 gallon of solution.
All of these solutions would be fed at 1 quart every three to four hours.
Tags and other identification
There is no easier time to catch a calf and get an ear tag in them than soon after birth. Purebred breeders usually tattoo the calf at this time for the same reason.
A sharp knife
Castration is done with male calves in the U.S. for two reasons. The first is the marketing system, which usually does not allow bulls to be graded in the same format as steers and heifers. The second reason is that, unlike most farms in Europe where castration is not necessary in the grading system, cattle are sold off the farm and mixed with cattle from other farms at least once and usually several times before final marketing. Each one of the mixing occasions will result in bulls fighting and injuring each other, as well as their handlers. Bulls are also more susceptible to being dark cutters at slaughter.
The easiest time to castrate a calf, and the easiest time for the calf, is soon after birth. It should also be done with a knife. Ours and other research has shown using rubber bands on calves increases the severity and stress on calves compared to knife castration at an early age. A manager can become proficient with knife castration and will usually find it becomes easier than using rubber bands.
Preparation for calving is one big step to having more calves to sell at the end of the year.
Dr. John Comerford is associate professor of dairy and animal science at the Pennsylvania State University.