Years of performance and economic data collected by Dr. Harlan Hughes document that most profitable cow-calf operations are not necessarily the ones with the highest weaning weights, but are those with the highest pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed. This is a measure of production efficiency that takes into account conception rate, calving rate, weaning rate and weaning weight. Coming into calving season, the goal of every cow-calf operation should be to focus on the part of the equation that ensures a live, healthy calf.

To meet a goal, most successful businesses have a plan or protocol to ensure that proper procedures are consistently employed to meet the goal thus reducing the risk of failure. Therefore, the first step in preparation for calving is to review or develop a calving protocol. I will provide some direction on what to consider, however, you will need to adjust the direction to reflect the uniqueness of your farm. This plan should be developed with all involved, most importantly your veterinarian.

Calving area

Given the opportunity, a cow will separate herself from the herd to give birth. If calving outside, is the area large enough for her to do that? If not, she may end up choosing a location that is too wet, muddy or windy, or she may end up calving next to the hay feeder with the risk of injury to the calf from other cows. Another factor to consider when calving outdoors is whether bedding is necessary. A calf that is born on dry, frozen or snowcovered ground can do well. I’ve seen calving areas that don’t use hay rings, which increases waste, but most feel it’s an adequate enough place for the cow to deliver and later as a place for calves to lie down.

If you’re calving inside, bedding is a must, and it needs to be changed often or added to on a regular basis. Personally, I’m not a big fan of calving inside, as it increases the risk of pathogens that cause calf scours. This is most important with the laterborn calves, when these pathogens have had an opportunity to increase in concentration.

Handling equipment

Despite using the best calving ease genetics there will be some calving issues that require restraint. Can you easily move the cow into your handling system? Is your headgate greased up and working properly? If she goes down, can you open the chute to get her up? Do you have good lighting? Is bedding readily available to provide a nonslip surface? Are obstetrical gloves, lubricant and obstetrical chains nearby? After delivery, do you have a well-bedded pen for cow and calf?

Check your supply list

Is everything readily accessible? I’ve seen several farms that have converted a toolbox into a calving supply box. Some supplies to consider:

  • Frozen colostrum (from your herd is preferred) or commercial colostrum replacer.
  • Disposable obstetric gloves.
  • Lubricant.
  • Calf-pulling equipment.
  • Stomach tube, nursing bottle, thermometer, dry towels
  • Ear tags, navel dip (7 percent iodine).
  • Selenium, vitamin A&D injections.
  • Castration and dehorning equipment.
  • Therapy for scours and respiratory problems.
  • Flashlight.
  • Record book.
  • Veterinarian’s phone number.

Now you are ready and waiting anxiously for the first birth. Beginning two weeks before the expected calving season, mature cows should be observed every eight hours, and first-calf heifers every four hours. Here are some indicators:

1. Signs that calving is within two weeks, which will be more evident in cows than in first-calf heifers:

  • Udder development.
  • Swelling of the vulva.

2. Signs indicating that calving will be soon:

  • Loss of cervical plug — sometimes mistaken for calving, but is another sign that calving is close.
  • Relaxation of the pelvic ligaments — difficult to see in fat cows (body condition score of 7 or greater)

3. Signs that calving is within hours:

  •  Variable behavior: not coming up to eat, not staying at the bunk, nervous — up and down, isolates herself from the herd.

4. Labor

  • Stage 1 — Dilation of cervix. May go unnoticed — could include elevation of tail and tail switching, discomfort.
  • Stage 2 — Begins with the entrance of membranes and fetus into the pelvic canal, appearance of membranes (or water bag) at the vulva, and ends with the completed birth of the calf. Once in this stage cows should calve within two hours, firstcalf heifers within one hour. If the calf is not born in this time period, or an obvious abnormality is observed (only one foot, back feet, tail), you should examine the cow (see Step 5 below).
  • Stage 3 — Shedding of placenta of fetal membranes eight to 12 hours.

5. Labor/delivery assistance

  •  If no progress is made in the prescribed time, the cow should be examined to determine the situation. If the problem cannot be identified and/or the calf cannot be delivered within 30 minutes, call your veterinarian for assistance.
  • Get the cow up if she goes down. Always check for a second calf.

6. Care of the newborn calf

  • For assisted births, make sure the calf is breathing — stimulate if necessary with a piece of hay or straw in the nose to try to get the calf to sneeze, or tickle its ear.
  • The calf should be up and nursing within 30 minutes of birth.
    •  If the calf is not nursing, assist the calf to nurse directly on the cow or put her in a chute.
    •  If the calf won’t nurse, milk the cow and bottle feed or administer by stomach tube.
    •  As a last resort feed stored colostrum or commercial colostrum replacer.
  • Make sure the calf consumes 1.5 to 2 percent of its body weight (1 to 2 quarts) of colostrum ( first milk from the cow) within four to six hours. Colostrum is the source of immunity for the newborn. Research has shown that calves not receiving adequate colostrum are more likely to scour and will have an impaired immune system throughout its life.
  • Cows that require assistance should be placed in a well-bedded pen for observation to assure the calf continues to nurse and the pair is well bonded.
  • Indications that the calf has nursed are shiny teats, hair around the teats is wet from nursing, and a calf with a full belly. A calf that hasn’t nursed will look gaunt and sunk in.
  • Identification, castration and dehorning
    • Record calf ID, birth date, sex and weight — calf hoof tapes can provide an easy alternative to actual scales.
    • Record cow body condition score and calving ease (1 = no assistance; 2 = some assistance; 3 = major assistance; 4 = caesarian section; 5 = abnormal presentation).
    • Beef Quality Assurance guidelines recommend that castration and dehorning be done at as young an age as possible.
  • In consultation with your veterinarian, dip navel and
    administer selenium and vitamin A&D

Calving is the highlight of the year for the cow-calf operator. Having a protocol in place and its successful implementation increases the number of healthy calves and is a key factor to profitability.

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