A successful beef cattle calving season requires careful attention to cows before, during and after the birth. Once calves are on the ground, immunization becomes the priority.

Most Northeast cow-calf farms calve in the early spring, a decision largely driven by the market. Dr. Michael J. Baker, Cornell Cooperative Extension beef cattle specialist, has been doing a price tracking study of 3,600 lots of cattle.

“Yearling cattle sold in March, April and May fetch prices that are respectively 25, 9 and 14 cents per pound higher than December prices,” he says. There are a variety of reasons; principal among them is the normal short supply in spring.

To house or not

With calving occurring when temperatures are warmer, spring-calving farms don’t have to contend with the added risks housing brings. Because they have such thick hides and coats, it’s not necessary to bring cows indoors.

A windbreak bedded with hay or cornstalks, with access to water, is more than sufficient shelter. In the event of colder weather, cattle compensate by eating more feed.

Still, some producers who have buildings available calve earlier. Old freestall barns or open shed buildings are fine, as long as they are not closed up. Air quality issues, such as ammonia buildup or damp air, lead to respiratory disease.

Once calves are born, get them out of housing as quickly as possible. “When the calf is up and sucking well, it can go outside,” Baker says.

Outdoor operations should acquire breeding stock from farms located in colder regions of the country. “Things like looking for windbreaks, pointing tails into the wind and standing together are learned behaviors,” says Baker.

A successful beef cattle calving season requires careful attention to cows before, during and after the birth.  Photo by Kim Stockwell-Morrison.A successful beef cattle calving season requires careful attention to cows before, during and after the birth.  Photo by Kim Stockwell-Morrison.

A successful beef cattle calving season requires careful attention to cows before, during and after the birth.
Photo by Kim Stockwell-Morrison.

Feeding right

Cattleman Tim Dennis of Penn Yan, N.Y., says the purebred Angus, Red Angus and Herefords in his 40-cow herd live outdoors. The retired veterinarian says he rarely fights disease in his herd because the animals are not concentrated in indoor facilities.

Dennis’ 200-acre Glade Haven Farm has a little over 100 acres in a rotational grazing system. The cows never stay longer than seven days on the 5-acre-plus lots. He also grows 50 acres of hay and 15 acres of corn.

The key to a well-honed reproductive program, he says, is to feed cows a balanced protein and energy diet. “If your cows are losing weight while you are trying to get them bred, you are fighting nature,” he says.

However, some fights with nature are worth having. Dennis says rabies from raccoons is a problem in his area. He vaccinates for the disease before his cows go out on pasture, along with administering modified live vaccines for leptospirosis, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV) and parainfluenza-3 virus (PI3).

Cows should be on pasture during their first trimester and have a mix of pasture and hay available for the second, says Baker. In their third trimester, prior to calving, their protein needs jump to 10 percent of their diet.

Courtesy of Dr. Michael J. Baker.

Courtesy of Dr. Michael J. Baker.

With the onset of colder weather, cows’ energy requirements jump by 10 to 20 percent, which means rations must also be supplemented with higher-energy feeds, such as corn silage. Care is required to assure the added energy doesn’t cause cows to be overweight at calving time.

Most early-cut grass hay – made before the middle of June – is a good fit, as well as grass-alfalfa mixes. Farmers who feed corn silage should do so with hay, because while this feed will meet energy requirements, it will likely be a bit low in protein.

Baker says mature cow body scores prior to calving should be from 4 to 5.5, while heifers should be 5.5 to 6.5 (see chart). Heifers need to carry more because their protein and energy reserves are not as high as a mature cow’s for quality and quantity of colostrum.

“I feed to the condition of the cow,” says Dennis. He says that means keeping an eye on cows and reducing or increasing energy levels in rations as cows eat through the winter.

While cows seem to do well on most feeds, they need to be gaining weight during pre-calving, calving and breeding. If they’re losing weight and seem to be eating all they can, it means the feed is low in energy or protein.

If feed quality is not an issue, then it’s time to call the veterinarian. Dennis says it’s best to call in a veterinarian who is familiar with your farm and its operation.

“You need to know your veterinarian,” he says. “If the only time you see your vet is when your calves are having respiratory problems or you are dealing with a difficult calving, that is not a relationship.”

Farmers who work closely with veterinarians set up vaccination and pregnancy checking programs. This brings vets to the farm often enough to become acquainted with the operation and makes them better equipped to deal with emergencies.

Baker says, “It’s important to have a vaccination program in place in the spring or fall to control for the respiratory complex. Scours vaccine is a good idea four to six weeks prior to calving.”

Cattle farms should also have good holding and processing facilities. That means having a head gate, a chute and a working alley capable of holding a few animals, and a corral.

It’s also a good idea to have cattle corralled and waiting for the veterinarian to arrive. “Veterinarians are not interested in being cowboys,” he says.

Breeding considerations

Cattle producers who use good-quality semen, use bulls that have undergone breeding soundness exams or hire good AI technicians should have very few problems getting cows bred. “If they do those things, there is no reason to not have 90 to 95 percent bred,” Dennis says.

He says good-quality semen has either been collected locally or purchased from a reputable breeding cooperative or company. “Be very leery of any semen that has changed hands a few times,” he adds.

Next, hire an experienced AI technician to fertilize cows – someone who fertilizes hundreds or thousands of cows a year.

Those choosing natural service should use bulls that have passed a breeding soundness exam (BSE) immediately prior to the breeding season. BSEs evaluate bulls in three ways: mating ability, scrotal circumference and semen quality.

A mating ability exam determines if a bull is physically capable of breeding. It looks at the animal’s legs, feet, eyes, teeth and body condition, as well as his penis and scrotum.

Scrotal circumference is determined using a tape measure and comparing the results to a chart developed by a national organization of veterinary reproduction specialists. Research shows bulls with larger scrotal circumferences tend to sire daughters likely to reach puberty at younger ages and more likely to cycle at the beginning of the breeding season than bulls with smaller circumferences.

Semen quality is determined by microscopic evaluation of sperm motility and morphology. Sperm motility refers to the percentage of sperm that show forward movement in the sample; morphology refers to the percentage of abnormal sperm cells present in the sample.

Use of sperm with fewer than 20 percent abnormal sperm cells results in much higher pregnancy rates.

Post-calving

The Northeast, like a number of other regions of the country, is selenium-deficient. That’s why it’s important to provide selenium-fortified, free-choice salt. It’s also a good idea to administer a selenium injection to newborn calves.

Dipping navels in iodine can reduce the possibility of infection via the umbilical cord.

Calves should suckle within an hour of birth in order to ingest the colostrum that provides a kick start for their immune system.

“Research shows that colostrum has no effect on immunity if not ingested within 24 to 48 hours,” notes Baker.

If the cow isn’t producing milk when the calf is born, or won’t allow the calf to nurse, colostrum from another cow can be used. “First choice is always the mother’s colostrum,” Dennis says. “Second choice is colostrum milked from another cow in the herd.”

Colostrum will keep for up to a year, if frozen. “If there is none available,” Dennis says, “there are commercial colostrum replacers available, though they are not cheap. If the calf won’t take the bottle, use a stomach tube.”

 Dr. Michael J. Baker, Cornell Cooperative Extension beef cattle specialist, says, "Yearling cattle sold in March, April and May fetch prices that are respectively 25, 9 and 14 cents per pound higher than December prices."  Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael J. Baker.


Dr. Michael J. Baker, Cornell Cooperative Extension beef cattle specialist, says, “Yearling cattle sold in March, April and May fetch prices that are respectively 25, 9 and 14 cents per pound higher than December prices.”
Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael J. Baker.

Vaccination programs

The next stage of keeping calves alive is their first round of vaccinations. Dennis vaccinates his March calves in July with a modified live vaccine for respiratory disease, as well as shots for clostridium and haemophilus. He follows up three weeks later with a repeat of the same.

There’s a good reason for waiting that long. “Colostrum interferes with vaccinations for up to three months,” says Baker. “If you don’t wait, you won’t get the same response that you would if you had waited.”

All the calves leaving Dennis’ farm are preconditioned and bunk-broke. His average weaning weights hover around 650 pounds. He doesn’t creep feed.

Preconditioning is a tough sell. In fact, those who do it just break even on the price.

The problem, says Baker, is that there is no one preconditioning program used by all producers. Then, too, producers may claim their calves are preconditioned when they really aren’t preconditioned very well.

“It is not uncommon to see calves in the market that were vaccinated the day before they were sent off-farm, or to see cattle vaccinated once with a killed vaccine that has not been boosted,” he explains.

It might seem easy to dismiss Dennis’ preconditioning program as a costly luxury, but it’s hard to dismiss the weaning weights he achieves – and it’s hard to consistently hit them without being on top of calf immunization.