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Pairing up is critical at calving — Part 1

Animal Health with Roy Lewis: Looking after the details will pay dividends later

Calving time (winter and spring) will soon be upon us, bringing the excitement of seeing what the next calf crop will be like. Several good practice tips emerge from my experience working with many great cow-calf managers over the years I hope some of these ideas will lead you to save more, and more productive, calves.

For the spring calver, great observation skills combined with the right decisions and the ability to go the extra mile will generally be rewarded. I hope everyone preg-checked their herds and removed the open and very late cows well before calving season. This eliminates a lot of the unnecessary labour of checking open cows and removing cycling cows from the calving area. Cycling cows can raise havoc, fighting, pushing and stepping on newborns. Late cows need to be in a separate pen or sold.

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First off and without question, new cow-calf pairs should be removed to a separate quiet area as soon as calving has occurred. This makes checking easier and keeps the calving ground less contaminated.

I wish more experienced producers could share or teach the little things they do when checking cattle. For example, questioning if blood from the vagina indicates a problem or if meconium (earliest stool of newborn calf) in the water bag is an indication the calf is stressed and needs to be extracted. Has one been nesting with no progress?

Calving cameras are also useful. Cameras positioned on the calving herd can reveal how many cows will try and steal a newborn. Particularly in the purebred business, it is critical to find out and confirm who belongs to who. Cross-adoption or abandonment by heifers that are not closely watched is another issue.

Confused mothers

Also, cows just going into stage one of labour will often claim a newborn and drive the real mother off. Good producers will let both cows follow the calf into the barn, knowing one is the real mother and the other should calve right away.

With a good maternity chute, you can rectal-exam the cow you think hasn’t calved to feel for a full-term calf in the uterus. If you feel nothing, check the other cow. One has to have a calf in it. If intervention is not done, the calf can get claimed by the wrong mother, her labour stops and she finally delivers a stillborn calf later in the day.

In cold weather, one simply has to get the cow-calf pair into their own pen and the calf dried off and warmed up. It is amazing how quickly most calves will suck once warmed, so the more we pair up cows with their calves directly after birth the calves will get up nurse suckle and pass meconium. This extra care to ensure mothering up will reap huge health benefits down the line. The colder it gets the more critical this warmup time is.

While running through the barn, use good observation skills to notice bad feet, lame cattle, and teats that aren’t sucked or could have mastitis. While the cow is close to the maternity chute, other issues including eye problems can be closely examined and treated if necessary.

I haven’t seen any hard data on this, but I believe if possible there are benefits to keeping a newborn calf and its mother in a separate standalone pen for close to 24 hours. It will reap huge benefits. That calf will have less susceptibility to pneumonia or scours because of a good suck of colostrum. If the calf is any bit slow to rise or doesn’t have a good suckle reflex by about 10 minutes, don’t delay, take action. Give the calf a colostrum replacement product such as Headstart. Check any colostrum replacers for quality. You usually get what you pay for and this is not the place to cut costs. If needing to tube with the colostrum, have one feeder for newborns (a new one), another for sick calves and still another for scouring calves. Have a plan for where sick and scouring calves (hopefully you don’t have any) can be isolated. This is critical to help prevent spread of disease in your herd.

I like to insist on boot dips by the maternity pen to keep producers aware that biosecurity on your farm is the most critical at calving time. Get all supplies ready, stocked and the calving area as clean as possible. Make sure the maternity pen calving jack has had a proper preparatory cleaning.

In Part 2, I will follow the progress of the calf into the bigger pens in the yard. I hope calving season goes well, and weather is on your side.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.

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