By Jennifer Stewart, Purdue Extension
Calves with any sort of difficulty at birth are four times more likely to die than those without, which is why conditioning cows for calving is extremely important, says Ron Lemenager, a Purdue University beef nutrition specialist.
As the spring calving season approaches, producers should examine critical factors to prepare cows to calve.
"The first key factor is to get cows into the right body condition so they have enough energy for normal calving," Lemenager says. "For most cows we recommend a body condition score of five and for first calf heifers a body condition of 5.5 to 6.
"Making sure cows have proper nutrition also will ensure a higher quality colostrum, or first milk after calving, which gives the calf disease protection and a dense nutrient supply."
Proper nutrition includes a diet high enough in energy for the cow to have a normal calving experience, the right protein content, and vitamins and minerals. But with the rainy hay season this past year, poor hay quality may mean producers need to supplement diets.
"Most producers probably have enough hay, but the quality is such that it's likely short in energy," Lemenager says. "Producers should get an analysis of their hay and then develop a supplementation strategy. It's also important that the cow has access to a high-quality, free-choice mix of vitamins and minerals, which are commercially available."
Nutritionally speaking, one thing producers need to keep an eye on is the amount of dried distillers grains (DDGs) they're feeding. Because DDGs are high in protein, cows should be fed DDGs to meet protein needs, not energy needs.
"If producers do feed DDGs, they need to be careful not to overfeed protein because too much protein will increase calf birth weights as well as blood nitrogen levels, which can negatively affect both conception rate and embryo survival," Lemenager says.
"Using distillers grains beyond protein requirements can cause a sulfur toxicity. At high levels, sulfur also can complex with other minerals, like copper, which is a vital mineral for reproduction."
In addition to conditioning cows, producers should look at their facilities and make sure they are prepared to house newborn calves in inclement weather - something Lemenager says is critical to calf survival.
Even with conditioned cows and proper facilities, some operations may still deal with calf scours, or neonatal diarrhea.
"This will be on an operation-by-operation basis, but if there is a history of calf scours, producers will want to work with a veterinarian to come up with a vaccination strategy for the cows that will provide passive immunity to the calf through high-quality colostrum," Lemenager says.
You can find more information at the Purdue Animal Sciences Beef Blog.