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Tips for a healthy calving season

Animal Health with Roy Lewis: All players should share ideas of what works and what doesn’t

Spring calving season is close upon us and every year after the fact, there are always some things we would do differently. Calving is a humbling experience, even for veterans. I am sure you all have some words of wisdom to share, and I am all ears.

We can all learn from each other, and our new-found knowledge may save calves and increase productivity in our herds. There is a great feeling of accomplishment in detecting a torsion or abnormal presentation in time to save the calf, or recognizing when a cow doesn’t have enough milk (colostrum) for its calf and it is starving, or knowing where and when to increase biosecurity practices to prevent that first case of scours.

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If we have an open mind, we can learn new skills or techniques that may save another calf. It is not always about economics but about doing the right thing when it comes to pain control, prudent antimicrobial usage and also telling our story to the public.

Adopting calves to another mother can be a real chore, but the almost bulletproof way is to skin the calf that was lost so you have a large cape. Make a slot in the hide and slip it over the head and neck of the new calf. Tie all the legs loosely so the cape stays in place and really that’s all you have to do. After a couple of days the hide works loose and gets very smelly and it’s time to come off. The mother should have accepted the smell of the new calf as her own and the adoption is complete. If the cow loses a calf right at calving, take the afterbirth and lay it over the calf being adopted or tie some of the tissue around the neck. I have also used a commercial product known as Calf Claim, which can be applied to the back of the adoptee calf and draws the mother to lick it. It can be effective as well.

Don’t be afraid to check

Don’t be overzealous, but watch for abnormal presentations such as breech births, torsions and even backwards calves, which can cause a cow or heifer to be in labour much longer than normal. If you suspect something is wrong, it’s time to check her out. You are never disappointed with this effort.

Put your hand in the birth canal, which is a long tunnel through soft folds of tissue with the cervix separating it from the uterus. If you can put your hand through the cervix, it’s dilated and the calf should have been starting through. Reach into the uterus to try to feel the calf and which way it’s laying. If the cervix is not fully dilated and you can only put one or two fingers through, the cow needs more time. If it’s partly open, you may be able to put your hand through and determine what’s happening with the calf, and why its feet aren’t starting through.

If you find an abnormal presentation, you may be in time to correct it and get a live calf out. With true breech births (which often happen with twins), torsions even some backwards calves, cows seem to be going through the first stages of labour but not advancing.

At times it may be necessary to provide the newborn calf with resuscitation. Have oxygen close at hand as well as Doxopram, a respiratory stimulant administered by injection. Have a needle and syringe drawn up ready to give intravenously. Your veterinary clinic can generally include Doxopram under prescription. It is very useful in my opinion to have a small bottle or one to two doses available for quick usage if need be. Also, an acupuncture point just below the middle of the calf’s nostrils has been tried with some success. Some veterinarians can show you where the treatment point is.

Colostrum is vital

Natural colostrum produced by the cow is always best for the newborn calf, but if it is not possible for the calf to nurse, an air-dried colostrum product such as HeadStart colostrum can also be very effective.

I use it in a situation with twin calves, giving a solution made a with 50-60 gram package to both. Make sure the calf receives at least one litre of colostrum to maintain enough immunoglobulins.

If the cow is a tough milker or is wild or for any reason you don’t think the calf will be able to suck directly, give it the extra colostrum without hesitation. If calves look gaunt, walk with crooked legs or contracted tendons and are generally slow, re-drench them if need be with more colostrum.

If checking the cow’s udder while it is being held in a chute, make sure all of the teats are open and milk flow is unobstructed and the colostrum quality looks good. You may find poor milkers or in rare cases mastitis or an udder full of blood. I also find backwards calves, especially after a pull, can be slow to rise so I don’t hesitate giving them colostrum. If in doubt, give the calf supplemental colostrum — the earlier the better, preferably in the first few hours after birth.

Keep calving areas clean and well bedded, as well as any carts, sleds, or anything used for handling or transporting the calves. Clean as regularly as possible with a disinfectant such as Virkon. A clean environment can go a long way to eliminating navel infection and other blood-borne diseases.

With nervous and overly possessive mothers or those rough on their calves, a dose of Acepromazine tranquilizer can work wonders for the first day. After even a moderate pull, using a painkiller such as Banamine or meloxicam can speed up recovery. These products can be purchased from your veterinarian under prescription.

We should always be trying to improve our calving management and success rate. By talking with other producers as well as with the animal health team of veterinarians, nutritionists, hoof trimmers, geneticists and A.I. technicians all have something to contribute to the betterment of your herd. All you have to do is ask. Have a great spring calving. The weather has sure been on our side at least in January here.

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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