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    Calving and Calf Health: Considerations and Prep

    Authored by Katie Navarra

    Calf health is vital to a successful and productive herd management strategy with significant implications for animal welfare and farm profitability. But raising healthy calves begins long before they are born with a comprehensive herd health program.

    Prioritizing calf health through proactive management strategies at three key stages—pre-calving, birthing and post-calving— can help you improve the long-term success and profitability of your cattle operation

    Pre-calving health protocol

    A vaccination protocol is a vital part of a herd-wide calf health plan. Vaccinations stimulate a pregnant cow’s immune system to increase antibodies, which a cow passes to the calf through colostrum, in a process known as passive immunity. As calves age, they develop a natural or active immunity to diseases through exposure to the environment and the administration of vaccinations to boost their natural antibodies.

    What is BCS?

    The cow’s overall health, particularly her body condition score (BCS), also impacts calf health at birth. Most beef producers in the United States use the BCS to determine the fatness of cattle, which indicates the general well-being of their cattle. The BCS system is based on a scale from 1 to 9, with a 5 -6 considered ideal pre-calving.

    Calving (parturition) considerations for calf health

    How often you can check on a cow that is ready to calve or observe a newborn calf depends on your operation. Ranches that rely on extensive range of conditions for grazing cannot check in multiple times a day but do have plans in place for visiting pastures for welfare checks. In contrast, if your cattle management plan includes confined spaces, it is possible to observe calves several times a day for signs of health or distress.

    “In confined systems, it is common to check animals multiple times a day and watch for signs of dystocia,” said Jordan Thomas, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri.

    Dystocia in heifers

    Dystocia occurs when a cow experiences an abnormal or difficult birth. It can increase the likelihood of having a stillborn calf and pose lingering health issues to the cow, which can be fatal and/or affect her ability to reproduce in the future.

    “First calf heifers around 2-years-old are generally expected to have greater calving difficulty. Producers may want to consider grouping those animals in separate pastures and devoting time to checking on them,” Thomas said. “Knowing when to intervene is important. However, the best cure is prevention through management to have as little incidence of dystocia in heifers as possible.”

    To decrease the chances of dystocia, Thomas recommends having heifers serviced by calving-ease bulls, considering artificial insemination to select high-accuracy calving-ease bulls strategically, and scheduling a pre-breeding evaluation with a veterinarian to ensure the heifer can successfully calve at two years of age.

    Post-calving observation 

    Once a calf is born, a few signs can signal if the animal is healthy or requires intervention.  

    “A healthy calf has bright eyes and perky ears. They should be up and nursing within two hours to get the necessary colostrum. A calf that is not doing well has droopy ears and a depressed look.”

    Neonatal diarrhea and calf handling

    Scours, also called neonatal diarrhea, can quickly cause dehydration, requiring intervention. Having an electrolyte product on hand, such as a paste or liquid that can be tubed, is important to replace fluids until the scours are under control. In addition to stocking up an electrolyte, Thomas recommends having frozen colostrum or a high-quality colostrum replacer on hand before calving season. This can be fed with a bottle or an esophageal tube feeder. Tubing a calf requires a bit of knowledge but online tutorials are readily available.

    “If you handle calves at birth, consider treating their navels with Iodine or another agent to limit infections and dry out the navel. You may also want to consider banding bull calves at birth rather than waiting to castrate at a later age; it is a high welfare way to do it and it gets it done early,” he said. “There is some danger in handling calves at birth depending on the dam’s disposition, so I don’t think every commercial operation necessarily needs to. But, if you are already planning to (e.g., to tag them), consider doing some of these other steps too.”

    Established VCPR

    Having a veterinarian-client-patient-relationship (VCPR) established ahead of time can also help you identify any vitamin or mineral deficiencies that may require an injection for newborn calves. A veterinarian who knows your operation can develop a plan tailored to your needs. 

    The bottom line

    Healthy calves are the foundation of a prosperous beef cattle operation. Using proactive management strategies pre-calving, during calving, and post-calving supports your efforts to keep a healthy, productive herd.

    More herd knowledge

    Read about calf housing & management.
    Jordan Thomas, PhD explains calving seasons and 7 reasons your cattle operation should have one.