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Preparedness checklist for calving season

Animal Health: Start with clean facilities and equipment and have all supplies in stock

This headlock works well for treating animals, or for holding a cow that 
may need calving assistance. There is no fixed gate at the back and the side panels swing open allowing full access to all parts of the animal if a C-section is required. The cow can lie down if she chooses.

As with any work area on the farm, having the proper equipment, keeping it maintained, disinfected and the area properly stocked with pharmaceuticals, will help insure a successful calving season.

The one critical and often-forgotten component is biosecurity. With many cows and their mothers moving through the calving area at a stressful time it is important to have an area that can be cleaned easily and sprayed periodically with Virkon disinfectant. I like to have a boot dip close by to be used both into and out of the calving area. This is especially critical when treating sick calves and before assisting in the delivery of a calf. You do not want to be the one who transmits disease on your premises. Change coveralls frequently and have a supply of towels or rags to keep yourself dry and clean. Coveralls can be the main culprit in disease transmission.

Equipment should consist of a well-functioning calf puller. There are many good models on the market, all of which work well. Make sure they only require one person to operate. You want to be able to be close to the back end of the cow where you can constantly check tension and placement of the chains, yet still be able to operate the puller.

Some of the fancier ones pull one leg then the other in a step-by-step motion. My main concern is that if the calf is that tight, that type of motion may be excessive. You will need at least two pulling handles and two chains, and some people even like models with a head snare. The handles should be large enough to get your hands into comfortably and grip the links of the chains without slipping. Always keep spares as handles and chains can easily get lost in the straw. They are cheap and when needed they are critical to have around.

Always clean and disinfect and hang equipment to dry between uses. Chains also fatigue and rust so replace them every couple of years unless you get the high-quality stainless steel type. Make sure the links are smooth and slide easily. You generally get what you pay for. In the past, the dirtiest piece of equipment on the farm was the breech of the calf puller so pressure wash it every so often and disinfect and hang to dry.

Other supplies include a package of good-quality obstetrical gloves, and a waterproof calving suit, which can easily be hosed down. Obstetrical gloves come in many strengths and colours. For calving you need the stronger, more expensive ones, which take a lot of abuse before ripping. The real thin ones are used for artificial insemination where fine feel is critical, but they will rip too easily during calvings.

Always, always examine the cow using obstetrical gloves and once the calf is out check for tears and the potential of a twin. The protection by OB gloves goes both ways. I have seen several people develop allergic skin reactions from constant exposure to the fetal fluids. Have elastics, hemostats or towel clamps to keep gloves up on your arms.

Surgical soap, which is non-irritating to the vulval area and your skin, is a must as well. I prefer “Endure.” Always also have a good source of warm clean water. Although the iodine soap products are good as far as killing bacteria, I find they have a tendency to dry your skin on repeated usage. Several clinics really like the betadine- (iodine) based soap. Human soaps are much too harsh on the sensitive vulvar area and we do not want cleaning to cause a reaction. Lots and lots of sterile lubricant, purchased by the gallon, complete with a hand pump will minimize the friction on many a tough calving and can make the difference between saving and losing a calf, especially when it relieves pressure around the head.

As far as medications are concerned, have your tags (management and RFID tags) and shots for the calf, including Vitamin A&D plus selenium, on hand as well. Have enough for the entire calving season. In some herds metaphylactic antibiotics are used to prevent navel infections (if that is what your veterinarian recommends) — again, have the season’s supply in stock.

If the cow is caught and held, before releasing her always check to make sure she is fully tagged and has no other health issues which need attending while in the maternity pen. Strip her teats out to make sure none are blocked and look for evidence of mastitis. Some producers tube feed the calf, if it has been a hard delivery, with colostrum and potentially administer NSAIDs.

These antiinflammatory drugs like banamine or metacam or oral meloxicam or anafen are being now used after harder pulls and make a big difference. They must be obtained by prescription from your veterinarian and its best to discuss the calving circumstances under which it is best to give and whether the calf, cow or both in some cases should receive it.

All farmers by now should have either a commercially made maternity pen, calving chute or a hand-constructed calving restraint device. A squeeze chute is definitely not the place to pull a calf and this is where wrecks can easily happen, especially if cows squat during the calving process.

Other critical drugs to have on hand may include a respiratory stimulant, which is also a prescription drug from your veterinarian. One cc of a respiratory stimulant given in the vein or squirted under the tongue can greatly facilitate breathing. Again you need to talk to your veterinarian on how to give it and if it is even available. Epinephrine (adrenalin) can also be given as a last-ditch effort to get the heart going. Because speed is of the essence these last two products need to be close at hand with syringe and needle ready.

Some producers even have an oxygen delivery apparatus, which can facilitate breathing and essentially flood the area with oxygen. Proper calf resuscitation and getting the calf sitting up so both lungs are oxygenating, is far better than hanging the calf. Hanging actually does more harm than good.

A calf esophageal feeder is also an absolute necessity. I like producers having one new one to use for colostrum on newborn calves, while the old one from last year can be use to deliver products to sick or scouring calves. Label each feeder accordingly. Disinfect the feeder bags or bottles including the feeder tube.

Keep the calving area and especially the maternity pen as clean as possible. Disinfect the puller and calving chains with something like Virkon disinfectant will help minimize spread of infectious organisms.

Follow other strict biosecurity practices like not allowing visitors during calving season or at least have them wear plastic disposable booties, which you will provide. Calving season is when you need a biosecurity crackdown.

With calving cows nearby, always have a hazing prop such as a paddle, rattle or hockey stick around. We all know even very quiet cows at or before calving may become over defensive so make sure the route to get cows into the calving area is planned with cross gates where needed and escape routes. If using a sled to bring in calves have a long lead rope to keep you a good distance from the cow. Many farmers have sleds or wagons built to pull behind a quad, gator or horse or simply by hand. Again I can’t stress enough watch for your safety as calving time is where the majority of livestock-related farm injuries occur.

Be prepared with as much equipment and supplies because when calving season hits there is no time to go shopping. Let’s not forget the rechargeable flashlight. Many have high candlepower and some producers even wear the mining-type head lamps.

Have a great 2017 calving season and being prepared may just save a couple more calves.

About the author


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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