Whether you have dairy cows or beef sucklers, calving time is the most important stage of the production cycle. For beef farmers, it marks the arrival of this year’s entire production and on the dairy farm, a successful calving determines the productivity for the following lactation. As well as the obvious vulnerability of the calf during and immediately after calving, it is the time when cows are most likely to be unwell or injured.
Clearly, a lot hinges on the outcome of the calving period. Particularly when the herd is bred seasonally; preparation is critical to a successful result. But when should this preparation begin?
When to start your prep
Detailed transition ration planning is an essential part of managing the dairy herd and is so influential to their future production and fertility. Nutritional bloods done on the dry cows can really help identify weaknesses in the transition ration. We recommend these are done regularly and if not, that we do them as soon as we start to see problems relating to transition such as retained cleansings, metritis, ketosis or fertility issues.
Beef cows must calve down in optimal condition. A condition score of 3 for autumn calving suckler cows and a condition score of 2.5 for spring calvers. Calves are then not oversized and cows are neither over-fat nor suffering sub-nutrition.
When food intakes are lacking in energy, protein, minerals or vitamins, complications for the cow or the calf will result. These could include milk fever, phosphorus deficiency and poor quality and/or quantity of colostrum. The indirect effects on the calf of under- or over-feeding the cow are numerous. Protracted calvings will result if cows have been fed too much or if they have been underfed.
Colostrum is essential
A good feed of quality colostrum early in life (10% of the calf’s body weight in the first 6hrs but ideally within the first 2 hrs) is absolutely essential. Colostrum provides protein, energy, water, minerals, vitamins and antibodies, all in a single package of goodness. The antibodies in colostrum provide protection from many of the infectious diseases a calf may come into contact with in the first few weeks of life. It should be considered the single most important medicine a calf ever gets, and it doesn’t cost you anything, bar a little time to ensure the calf gets it!
However, with colostrum there are many variables to consider: Firstly, the quality of colostrum varies from cow to cow. Heifers generally have poorer quality colostrum, and the colostrum quality will decline the longer after calving it is left in the udder – therefore it is important to milk the cow as soon as possible after calving.
Secondly, the uptake of these colostral antibodies from the calf’s gut only occurs during the first 12-24 hours of life, with the first 6 hours allowing maximum absorption. Muck and bacteria will reduce the gut walls’ ability to absorb these antibodies so, ensuring the cow’s teats, stomach tube, etc., are clean is also essential. In cases where a cow doesn’t have sufficient colostrum for her calf, it is vital you have another source.
This may be from anther cow in the herd, it may be fresh or frozen and then thawed (slowly, NOT microwaved as this will denature the antibodies) – if this is the case it must be the first milking – the level of antibodies in colostrum after the first milking rapidly decline.
Alternatively, a powdered substitute can be used but, be careful. A good quality colostrum REPLACER should not be mistaken for a colostrum SUPPLEMENT – marketing legislation means these products are very misleading and you will need the replacer, not the supplement. The simplest indicator of volume of antibodies is price – something costing you less than £25 per feed is a supplement and will not provide the calf with adequate antibodies to replace the colostrum feed from its mother.
A colostrometer can be used to measure colostrum quality or your vet can take blood samples from calves 1-7 days old to check colostrum transfer – this is really useful and, for block calvers, can be done in a one-off visit after the first 5-10% calves are born each year. This then can highlight if there is an issue which can be rectified before any more calves are born. In an all-year-round system, they are done sporadically when your vet is on farm to check colostrum protocols are working, or whenever there is a disease outbreak in the calves.
In many herds preparation for calving also requires ensuring correct vaccination of cows for diseases such as leptospirosis, BVD, clostridial diseases, rotavirus and E. coli, so that protective antibodies are present in the cow during pregnancy and in the colostrum at calving time. Some herds, commonly the double muscled breeds, may need vitamin E/selenium treatment in advance of calving.
Timing of calving needs to be planned to ensure the availability of adequate staff and of calving facilities, whether this is a suitable paddock outside or yards or pens inside. A means of handling cows which need intervention should ensure the safety of stockmen and be easy to deploy. Always have a halter and your preferred method of applying traction at hand, with calving ropes, clean water and buckets, disinfectant, gloves and lubrication, in case they are needed. We have found farmers who have invested in calving gates never regret them and many wish they had got one years ago as they allow safe restraint but, are easy to release if the cow should go down during calving.
Supplies to have on hand
Supplies that may be required after calving are iodine treatment for navels to prevent infection tracking into the calf’s body, sterile needles and syringes in case any medication is required, ear tags, electrolytes, colostrum, milk substitutes and clean tube feeders. Make sure you have two stomach tubes. One to feed colostrum through and one for sick calves. Using one for both could risk spreading disease form calf to calf.
Best laid plans
However, even with the best preparation, things can go wrong. In preparing for calving it is a good idea to be ready for these complications as well.
Don’t let calving catch you out, get the preparation done in plenty of time. It will help you get through calving with all the herd healthy and ready to perform over the coming year. We can help with all aspects of your calving prep. Give us a call to book a visit.