Southeast cattle farmers and ranchers have begun a very busy and critical time of the year. Most producers have already begun calving season and some are considering improving management practices. Producers can make calving season more predictable, more profitable, and less stressful by implementing some key management practices.
By: Lee VanVlake, Clemson University Extension Area Livestock Agent
Calving season should be included in the planning process each year by having a defined breeding season chosen in advance. A defined breeding season, spring or fall, allows a producer to make more accurate predictions of when the first calves should start arriving and when the last cow should calve. Informative record keeping and better decisions can help producers be ready in case of an emergency or other problems associated with calving. In order to achieve the desired 60-90 day calving season, a 60-90 day breeding season is necessary. Collecting data such as breeding dates, cow IDs, cow age, calving history, and having cows checked for pregnancy status will also prove beneficial during calving season. Accurate and well-kept records will eliminate frustrations associated with calving, such as not knowing when each cow is due to calve. Having a group of calves close in age will make weaning more streamlined which will help produce a more uniform calf crop for marketing.
In a cow/calf operation, reproductive efficiency is one of the most important aspects for a producer when increasing profitability and/or efficiency is a main goal of the operation. To start achieving this goal the primary focus is to have every cow delivering a live calf and keeping them alive and healthy until weaned. Major causes of calf death and health problems including starvation, dystocia (calving difficulty), exposure to the elements, metabolic disorders, scours, pneumonia, and trauma are some of the hurdles that must be overcome to produce a healthy calf crop each year. The majority of these can be reduced or prevented from implementing good management practices and being prepared with accurate records and supplies. Proper preparation before calving season allows producers to be more efficient at handling problems. Having a good working facility is paramount to any cattle operation along with basic supplies and knowledge of common problems and treatments are helpful in preventing illness or treating cows or calves when problems arise. Producers should be prepared by having a calving kit ready and easily accessible. Basic items that should be included in the calving kit are lubricant, calving chains, palpation sleeves, towels, bucket, clean water, flashlight, rope halter, catch rope, colostrum supplement, calf bottle, castration tools, record book, writing utensil, iodine, ear tags, and contact information to local veterinarians. As a cattle producer, it is always a good idea to have a relationship with a local veterinarian in case an emergency comes up that requires a veterinarian’s attention. It is much easier to get a veterinarian in time of need if there is a prior relationship rather than calling them the first time in the middle of a night to pull a calf.
One of the major concerns previously mentioned with calving death is dystocia, which is defined as abnormal or difficult birth. Research shows that almost 50 percent of all calf deaths from birth to one day old are the result of calving difficulty. The majority of calves that are delivered easily and in a standard amount of time are rarely stillborn. This is when well-kept and accurate records of the breeding season will aid in knowing which cow or heifer needs your attention as they prepare to calf. Observing cattle often and assisting early can limit or reduce problems associated with dystocia. Well-kept and accurate records of the breeding season will aid in knowing which cow or heifer needs your attention as they prepare to calf. If possible, heifers should be checked every 4 hours and cows should be checked at least 3-4 times a day. Cows that are in active labor should make progress or deliver the calf within one hour. If progress isn’t being made the calf should be checked for proper position and size. There may be times a newborn calf will have difficulty breathing and will need assistance by clearing respiratory passages from obstruction. A newborn calf should be up and trying to nurse within 30-45 minutes after birth. This is sometimes a difficult challenge especially for first calf heifers as well as some cows. If this problem arises it is essential to restrain the cow or heifer so the calf can nurse. If the calf does not receive the colostrum or first milk, chances of survival are significantly decreased. Making sure to monitor cows on a routine basis will help avoid emergencies and prolonged calving difficulties. With the price of feeder calves, it will pay to spend extra time with the cows in order to assist when the situation calls for it.
Pasture management is a great way to organize cows and make life easier when calving season arrives. Place pregnant cows in pastures that are easily accessible to make moving cows and calves easier. Cows need to be checked frequently during the calving season and placing these animals in an easily accessible location will make this time less stressful and more manageable. If available, put first calf heifers in their own pasture as they will probably need more attention and extra care. The pasture should be dry and close to a working facility with a chute. Removing cows and calves from the calving pasture and into a separate pasture will help with observing the cows that have not calved.
Once the cows have calved, calf management becomes critical to ensure a healthy calf. The best time to perform these practices is within the first few days of the calf’s life. This can be done on the first day as the calf is less mobile and easier to restrain and handle. Calf management includes several practices a producer can do at birth to limit stress on a calf later in life, which could have a negative effect on production. These include disinfecting the navel, ear tagging or tattooing, and castration. Castrating bull calves when they are newborns can cut down on stress they would experience being castrated at an older age. Young calves will bleed very little and do not experience as much pain. The following chart shows average daily gain loss as a result of later castration.
In summary, be prepared for calving season by having the proper equipment and records. Start planning several months prior to calving by having a defined breeding season. If problems or emergencies arise have a plan and be adequately prepared. This can reduce stress on producer, cow, and calves. Good record keeping is also vital to proper management and will help in making decisions such as culling, buying bulls, and calving season much easier.