Cow-Calf Commentary for Iowa Cattleman Magazine

By Randie Culbertson, extension cow-calf specialist

February 2023

Checklist for calving: are you prepared?
Are you prepared for a successful calving season? The following is a checklist to help you survive those sleep deprived days resulting in healthy calves on the ground.  

  • Nutrition: A body condition score (BCS) of 5 is ideal for calving. Research has shown that underfeeding (BCS of 3.5 or less) is associated with weak labor, increased dystocia, neonatal death, reduced milk production, lower quality colostrum, poor calf performance and reduction in rebreeding performance. Conversely, extreme overfeeding (BCS of 7 or higher) also can lead to reduced birth weight, neonatal death loss, increased dystocia, reduced milk production and poor rebreeding performance. Aiming for an ideal BCS of 5 increases the odds of a successful calving season, and by maintaining that BCS through lactation, increases the odds of the cow rebreeding during the following breeding season. If space allows, separating cows based on calving dates or BCS can help to meet their nutritional requirements. The Iowa Beef Center website provides more information on the nutritional requirements for cows during late gestation.
  • Herd health: Producers should work closely with their veterinarian to develop an animal health program that fits their specific operation. Pre-calving vaccinations are common to improve neonatal calf immunity through improved colostrum from vaccinated pregnant cows. To help control scours, have a plan for managing cow-calf pairs throughout the calving season. In addition to providing a clean environment for calving, rotating calving areas can help to minimize a newborn calf’s exposure since older calves (7 to 14 days) are a major source of the pathogen.
  • Facilities: Adequate calving facilities can make a big difference during calving. Facilities should provide a clean and dry environment for calving that will allow a cow to easily move into where she can deliver and get the calf up quickly to nurse. Have bedding available to ensure clean and dry areas for calving when needed. Ensure that your facilities are in proper working order and inspect your gates, pens, alleys and head catches. Good lighting is important, so check lights and have replacement bulbs on hand. Have a plan and the appropriate equipment for warming calves during cold weather. For more information check out Denise Schwab’s Cow Tip Tuesday video on calving facilities on the Iowa Beef Center’s YouTube channel.
  • Supplies: Make sure you have adequate supplies such as obstetrical (OB) gloves, OB lube, paper towels, calf feed bottles, halters, ropes, etc. Make sure your OB chains and calf puller are clean and in working order.
  • Brush up on stages of calving: Understanding the stages of calving can help you to determine the normal progression of delivery and help you determine when you should intervene. The Iowa Beef Center website has detailed descriptions and videos explaining the 3 stages of calving. You can also check out Chris Clark’s Cow Tip Tuesday on when to intervene during calving.
  • Colostrum and colostrum replacement: Providing adequate colostral intake in the first 12 hours of a calf’s life is crucial to having a healthy calf. Colostrum is the first milk produced by a cow at calving and provides nutrients and antibodies for the calf. A neonatal calf is born lacking disease protection and the antibodies from colostrum provide the calf’s initial protection. During the first 24 hours post-calving, a newborn calf’s digestive tract allows for the antibodies from colostrum to pass directly into the blood system, so time is of the essence! Make sure you have a plan for storing colostrum and consult with your veterinarian for the use of colostrum replacers. See more information in the Iowa Beef Center’s online calving management manual.

Every cow-calf producer aims for a successful calving season. Careful planning can result in more live calves on the ground and set up a cow herd for a successful future breeding season. If you find yourself pulling a number of calves, and the nutritional requirements of the cow are being met, it’s time to look at the genetics. Selecting the right genetics for a successful calving season occurs the year prior to calves hitting the ground. Pay careful attention to the calving ease EPD of bulls you chose to breed to, especially for heifers. No matter how much you prepare, a low calving ease bull can cause a major train wreck. So once calving season is behind you, take note of how many calves you pulled, communicate that to the breeder you buy your bulls from, and keep that information in mind when looking forward to the breeding season.

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