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Easy calving

Agriculture.com Staff 02/18/2008 @ 7:03pm

Up until seven years ago, calving seasons at Gail Nason's Tryon, Nebraska, ranch brought a host of headaches and a lot of dead calves. It wasn't unusual to lose 50 or more calves to scours -- 12% of the calf crop on 450 cows.

What was so perplexing was that Nason was already doing a lot of things right. But then her local vet, Tim Knott, guided her to a calving system being touted by researchers at the University of Nebraska.

It's called the Sandhills Calving System, and its aim is simple: Reduce disease pathogens at calving by segregating the older calves from the younger.

Nason tried it, and illness and deaths plummeted. "I don't doctor calves anymore, and I haven't lost a calf since 2003," she says.

"Disease is usually not a problem if a calf gets a good start," says Gary Rupp of the Nebraska Great Plains Vet Educational Center. "But when stress occurs first, it sets the stage for bacterial and viral diseases. Dystocia [slow delivery] is the biggest killer of calves."

It weakens them, lengthening the time to stand and nurse.

Follow these eight tips to easier calving seasons in your future.

  • Take care of the cows before calving
    "When cows are too thin, they'll be in labor longer, calves will be smaller at birth, and they won't milk as well," says Scott Poock, University of Missouri Extension vet.

    Especially give cows proper nutrition in mid- to late-gestation, says Russ Daly, Extension vet at South Dakota State University. "Last spring, we heard reports of a lot of weak calves that weren't nursing. We traced it to the feed that was available back in December."

    Trace minerals play a role in calf health; copper is critical to the production of colostrum and a calf's immune system.

  • Select for calving ease
    "Mating cows, especially heifers, to bulls proven for calving ease will result in easier births," says Poock. Nason measures yearling heifers for pelvic size to weed out those likely to have problems.
  • Assist difficult births at the proper time
    This minimizes the stress of a difficult calving. Assisting either too early or too late are both harmful options.

    "A good gauge is the old rule of thumb to help a heifer after an hour of good, hard straining, and after a little less time for a cow," says Rupp.

  • Ensure adequate and immediate colostrum
    "The earlier, the better," says Rupp, "within 30 to 60 minutes." Colostrum isn't that useful if bacteria gets into the calf's body first. Healthy calves stand and nurse quickly on their own and get the colostrum they need. If you must hand-feed colostrum, give them at least one quart the first feeding.
  • Reduce weather stress
    Calves born in cold, wet conditions use their energy to stay warm, rather than to get up and nurse, says Daly. That's one reason Nason calves on grass in the warm, usually drier weather of May and June.
  • Select good mothers
    Most of the previous precautions are nonissues when cows have been selected for mothering skills. "It's a process of survival of the fittest, where producers retain replacement heifers only out of cows that have done a good job of raising calves," says Daly.
  • Segregate older calves from younger ones
    "The beauty of the Sandhills Calving System is that it dilutes the amount of disease organisms that might infect younger calves,” says Poock. “It simply decreases the younger calves’ exposure to disease."
  • Alternate calving areas
    Certain diseases live within the cow herd and are shed wherever the herd is located. Change calving locations and wait two years before returning -- it will reduce the bacteria load. "Time and sunlight are good disinfectants and will kill some of the disease organisms," says Poock.

Up until seven years ago, calving seasons at Gail Nason's Tryon, Nebraska, ranch brought a host of headaches and a lot of dead calves. It wasn't unusual to lose 50 or more calves to scours -- 12% of the calf crop on 450 cows.

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