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Weak Calf Syndrome, Adequate Nutrition, and the Ramifications of a Tough Winter

January 30, 2014
Cows Snow Hay
There's no argument that cows require more nutrition during difficult weather conditions.  
 
 

By: Stan Smith, Ohio State University Extension

Nearly every winter we spend time talking about the impact that harsh weather combined with less than adequate nutritional intake by the cow can have on the cow at calving, the resulting health of the calf, and perhaps even the cow at breed back time. It goes without saying that cattlemen are offering adequate amounts of feed and water during the difficult weather conditions most of the Midwest is experiencing. Regardless, are we certain the feed being offered is high enough quality and is being consumed and digested in amounts adequate for maintaining the health of both the cow and calf or fetus?

Last evening during his presentation on the Ohio Beef Cattle School webinar, Francis Fluharty reminded us that a cow utilizes additional energy simply warming the water she's consuming that's at freezing temperatures. At the same time the extremely cold weather in and of itself is increasing the nutrient requirements of that cow. Even though she's consuming all she can eat, due to the time it takes to digest long stemmed and/or lesser quality forages, sometimes in these conditions that cow's body simply isn't sustaining itself. Over an extended period, that can lead to lower quality colostrum, calving difficulties, weak calves and inadequate milk production.

During last weekend's Ohio Cattlemen's Association annual meeting I had the opportunity to visit with a couple of Ohio Angus breeders who reminisced about their experiences resulting from Ohio's blizzard conditions during the later 70's. Earl McKarns shared that despite enjoying flowing water in his spring fed tanks throughout that winter, at one point he discovered not all the cows were able to reach them for water. The ice under the snow cover was such that the cows simply wouldn't attempt to walk down the slope to water until the footing was improved by unrolling some lesser quality hay down those slopes for traction.

Ohio Angus breeder and veterinarian Keith Burgett was quick to mention his experiences with what was later dubbed "weak calf syndrome." He cited how several calves born in the spring following Ohio's historic blizzard conditions of 1978 were so weak they didn't want to get up after birth, refused to nurse, and generally were unthrifty and often times died. Much like McKarns, Burgett pointed out that the consumption and digestion of adequate nutrition - including water and mineral - was vital to success during and after calving for both the cow and the calf.

There's no argument that cows require more nutrition during difficult weather conditions. If you want to review additional detail on that subject, see the article linked here by Steve Boyles and Jeff McCutcheon. The key is that the nutrition must be consumed in amounts that sustain the body and the fetus. As we've mentioned often times in the past, a full belly on a cow in the dead of winter is not necessarily an indication of adequate nutrition. Sometimes it simply means that forage quality is either so poor, or long stemmed and slowly digestible enough that it isn't passing through the cow's digestive system quickly enough to sustain her.

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