ANIMAL HEALTH SERIES Healthy Calving Basics

Part 1

By Peggy Joseph-Potter RN, BSN, MHA
As we say goodbye to the winter we welcome the essence of spring and hopefully a fruitful calving season. This is a crucial time for all producers, large and small, to assess and manage their cow-calf operations. As breeders, our focus should be on getting a live calf, keeping that calf alive and keeping that calf healthy. This two-part series is intended to present building blocks for healthy calving for the novice and a refresher for the veterans.
Healthy calves start with healthy cows. Proper nutrition enhances the cows’ ability to cycle, breed, maintain and nourish a healthy growing fetus and the energy to deliver that calf with ease. It is also an essential element in the bovines’ ability to produce high quality colostrum and adequate milk to nourish her calf. Exposure to pathogens, weather, and toxins may alter the needs of a pregnant cow and should be considered when developing your calving program. (Lathrop, Mike. DMV)
Body Condition: Good nutrition is an essential for body condition and the production of quality colostrum. Calves of mothers with higher body condition scores have been shown to absorb colostral antibodies more efficiently that those at the lower end of the scale. These calves also demonstrated a more efficient immune system, took less time to stand, nurse and showed more vigor after birth. (Odde, Autum 1992m Vol 3, No.3)
Disease Exposure and Control: As important as nutrition, the cow’s environment and reduction of exposure to pathogens and toxins is essential due to their inability to pass antibodies across the placenta. Therefore, the fetus needs to be protected from exposure to pathogens (consistent and complete vaccination program), mycotoxins (moldy feed), nitrates, cyanide, and the toxins found in pine needles.
Bulls are an important piece of the equation so remember in addition to their genetic traits bulls can also pass on pathogens so protect your calves through the maintenance of a consistent vaccination program or by the purchase of semen from a reputable vendor with good pathogen control.
Nutrition: Nutritional basics include quality and quantity of energy (fat), protein, vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, and water. Good quality, plentiful water is essential for nutrition, as a limited supply will also decrease food intake and energy production. Two-thirds of a fetus’ growth occurs in the last one-third of gestation therefore a cows’ diet must be enhanced to meet this additional demand and to ensure adequate nourishment of both cow and future calf.
Colostrums: Colostrum contains solids such as fat and protein, vitamins, minerals, hormones and immune cells. Fat is essential for energy, protein is necessary for growth and vitality and as immunoglobulin. Immunoglobulins are larger protein molecules that are antibodies against pathogens. The cow may have encountered these pathogens naturally or through breeding and she is passes them on to her calf. It is vitally important for these immunoglobulins to enter the calf’s blood stream in the first few hours of life for the production of antibodies to occur. These antibodies aid in the protection of the calf against infection for several months; they are also present in the lumen of the gut for neutralization of pathogens at the site of entry.
Consumption of adequate quality and quantity of colostrums will decrease the calf’s risk for pneumonia, scours and other diseases for the next 28 days and throughout weaning. Studies have demonstrated an increase production in the calf that can be measured by weaning weighs, carcass quality, and future reproductive efficiency and milk production in females. (Corah, 1975)
Energy, Protein, Minerals and Vitamins: Breeders can decrease their morbidity and mortality rate by meeting the increasing demand for energy, protein, minerals and vitamins required in the last 90 days of gestation. Studies have found a correlation between body condition of the dam at calving and calf serum antibody levels. In addition, poor protein consumption and cooper deficiencies late in pregnancy can be associated with “weak calf syndrome.” (Corah, 1975)
Diseases such as White Muscle Disease (nutritional Muscular Dystrophy caused by a lack of Selenium) and Weak calf syndrome (apathy, failure to suck or stand) can be avoided by ensuring proper nutrition of your pregnant cows. Keep your cow’s increased need for minerals such as Selenium, Copper, Iodine and Vitamin A and E in mind when developing your supplement program. Soil and feed analysis may be available from your local Agricultural Extension or as an online service. Supplements either need to be in their feed or provided by injection to ensure adequate intake. Feed store personnel or feed vendors are very helpful in the development of a program that considers soil and vitamin deficiencies, climate and other local requirements.
Now that you have gotten your pregnant cow to the point of delivery always be prepared for the unexpected. In addition to OB supplies to have on hand, notify your ranch Veterinarian in advance if you anticipate calving problems
OB Supplies to have on hand:

  • OB sleeve, disposable gloves
  • OB lube(don’t use detergent)
  • Disinfectant
  • Clean Bucket
  • Iodine liquid for spray or dipping
  • Prepared or frozen Colostrum
  • Calf bottle and nipples (soda bottle and lambs nipples)
  • Chains and Handles
  • Rectal Thermometer
  • Lots of clean towels (keep some in the dryer for extra warmth)

An inexpensive plastic container is any easy way to keep your OB supplies clean and read for the next delivery. Make sure to attach the phone number to your ranch veterinarians to the box and do not forget your cell phone.
A healthy calf starts with a heifer or cow in good condition, well-maintained vaccination and biosecurity programs and a bull appropriate for the size of the cow or first calf heifer. A laboring bovine should be provided with a clean, well-ventilated space at this at least 12” X 12,” food and lots of clean water for while she is in labor and immediately after delivery.
Next edition will explore labor management issues and the calf’s’ health after delivery and what it takes to keep them healthy those first few months of life.

Corah, L. D. (1975). Influence of prepartum nutrition on the reporductive performance of beef females and the performace of their progency. Animal Science 41 , 819. Lathrop, Mike. DMV. (n.d.). Calf Health-Birth to Branding. Retrieved February 15, 2010, from Pfiser Animal Health. Odde, K. (Autum 1992m Vol 3, No.3). They are what they eat, impact of cow-calf nutrition on reproduction, calf development, and disease resistance. Topics in Vet Medicine .
Biography Peggy and her husband, Bob Potter, own and operate PJ Ranch LLC in Winton, California where they raise Miniature and Polled Herefords. They have been active participants in the MHBA since 2002. She is also employed as a critical care nurse at a local medical center.

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