By: Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension, Cow/Calf Field Specialist
The prospect of calving trouble is one of the biggest concerns during calving season, especially with first calf heifers. Most stockmen spend a lot of time developing plans for assistance with the goal of a live calf on the ground. The primary focus is usually on determining when and how to assist with the birth. In the case of calving difficulty, a successful delivery is only the first step as that calf still faces some significant challenges.
Calves that experienced a difficult birth often have low oxygen levels in their bloodstream. In addition, their blood pH can also be acidic instead of neutral. These conditions can lead to the calf taking more time to stand and nurse, poorer absorption of colostrum, and poorer temperature regulation. These problems all point to a greater risk of infectious disease and early mortality.
In fact the negative effects of calving difficulty may last longer in that calf’s life than we had previously thought. Research from the dairy industry shows that heifer calves that experienced a difficult birth produced about 1600 pounds less milk in their first lactation compared to heifer calves that were born easily. If calving difficulty can cause that large an effect two years later, it’s not too difficult to make the case that calving difficulty could cause affect performance in beef calves, whether that’s in the future performance of herd replacements, or feedlot performance or carcass merit.
What are some management practices that producers can take to reduce the problems associated with calving difficulties? Genetics and the nutrition and development of replacements play large roles in the level of calving difficulty faced by a cowherd. Obviously we can’t change what’s been done to generate this year’s calf crop, but we can look at whether or not we need to make some changes in our management or genetic selections and act accordingly as we plan for next year. Having a good knowledge of when and how to properly assist with a difficult calf can make a great difference in the viability of the calf once it’s born.
We can also be proactive in providing assistance; both during the birth process but also in the hours and days after calving. Rather than assuming that a calf is alright until it proves otherwise, it may be wise to assume that the calf that needed assistance during birth will need help and take more aggressive steps to provide supportive care to minimize stress and increase the chances of survival.
Some of these steps include:
- Thoroughly dry the calf to stimulate breathing and minimize heat loss.
- Make sure the calf gets enough colostrum quickly, using a tube feeder if necessary.
- Provide additional warmth with a warming box or heat lamp if necessary.
The calves that will be born this spring will likely be some of the most valuable we’ve ever seen. Even small improvements in reducing calf death losses could make a substantial difference in a ranch’s bottom line. If you need additional information to develop a plan for your operation, please contact one of the State or Field Beef Specialists or your herd veterinarian.