This spring has been less than ideal for calving. In west-central Saskatchewan we’ve had record cold temperatures with wind and snow, and the wet weather is just around the corner. Calves born in these conditions often show the effects with frozen ears and feet — that’s if you can keep them alive in the first place. Once the wet weather hits, the poor calves will face another host of challenges. It will become quite a job to keep them dry and healthy.
Many operations, especially the smaller family operations, often don’t have the facilities and environment for spring calving that looks a lot like winter calving. Most of the time if you have a large space with some good brush for a windbreak and protection, a cow will have no problem calving out and bringing home a good calf. With early spring temperatures around -20 C plus a wind chill factor, that same environment is not quite enough.
If the birth is quick, the cow gets right up to lick the calf, and then gets the calf up to nurse. The calf might survive, but will very likely be missing ears and may have slightly frozen feet. If you’re not lucky enough to have a field with good brush and you’re trying to calve out of a corral, there are challenges even in the best of conditions.
Since we don’t have good natural windbreaks, we bring all cows up to the corral when calving season gets close and provide them with a windbreak at the very least. We’ve found, especially this year, that straw is an invaluable part of keeping the calves warm and healthy. We have two corrals, one for the cows with calves and one for the cows yet to calve. We have been using a lot of straw this year and it is working. We use flax straw on the bottom because it does not wick up the moisture, and then put barley or wheat straw on top. This changes a snowy, icy, or even a muddy corral into a dry, clean calving area.
We spread the straw far beyond the lean-to so that there is enough space for the cows to bed their calves in a good place. Even if the calves aren’t under the lean-to they are at least not in a snowbank getting chilled. A healthy calf that is going well and may even be several weeks old can still get chilled and develop pneumonia and die.
We also have a small shed that we split in two with panels so that we can bring a calving cow in at night. We bed this shed with a good amount of wheat or barley straw so that it’s a clean, dry environment to calve in. After the cow has licked and fed the calf and they both seem to be well bonded, we kick them out into the corral with the other calves and cows. We bed both corrals heavily and we put fresh bedding in every few days.
Straw helps protect calves under wet weather. The straw will keep the calves from sleeping in mud and getting chilled. Even if the calf isn’t under a shelter and gets rained on it will be able to maintain its body temperature as long as it’s not lying on wet ground. The straw will also help keep the standing water under control in the corral so that the calves and the cows don’t drink out of the dirty manure and urine puddles. With more heat in the sun, it doesn’t take long for puddles to start forming in your corral. Putting flax straw in low spots prevent the puddles.
Even when you are able to turn your cows and new calves out on a dry field it is a good idea to still give them a good bedding to encourage them to sleep where it is dry. A calf can withstand quite a bit of cold with a windbreak. If you do not have thick brush for a windbreak, another option is to set out a row of straw bales. The cows may rub on the bales but usually they are still in good enough shape to easily pick up later with a tine on a tractor. Depending on geography and prevailing winds, a simple row of 10 or so bales should work, or in areas of variable wind direction consider stacking the bales in the form of a horseshoe. This will take more bales but it should provide your calves with enough protection to keep them much warmer, and therefore healthier.