With spring approaching, I am going to attempt to summarize the many ways we can collectively (and hopefully) maximize calf survivability and productivity starting at calving time.
Each of you will have different management styles, strategies, and numbers — but if there are one or two new things, techniques, or observations you can learn from, then this read will have been worth it.
This may be more applicable to the producer who calves in late winter when cows are close at hand and easy to observe, but some treatments or strategies apply to everyone.
When calving, my key advice is to watch closely if possible.
During the calving process itself, the best advice I can give is to watch the time if possible. A cow or heifer that has been starting or even getting up and down incessantly and hasn’t produced anything should be checked out. Rarely in my experience is this a wasted effort. From twins mixed up to backwards calves, full breech birth torsions to fetal oversize to a persistent hymen (band of tissue running through the vagina), something is abnormal which is delaying the cow’s progress.
Once cows go into labour, time is ticking and I have seen many a calf saved by the diligent farmer who knows his cows and recognizes the lack of progression early on.
My theory is with an abnormality they often don’t get into the true act of labour — which is why the problem is very hard to recognize. If your intuition suggests there is a problem, you are probably right. Then it is a matter of recognizing which abnormalities you can handle and which you need a hand with. If you expect a harder pull, then another set of hands is really helpful to get the right angle on the pullers and with faster pulls (like backwards calves where the pull must be faster to get the calf to where it can breathe).
Breeding for easy calving has allowed us to come a tremendous way in the last 30 years in all the breeds. Some rarely use a puller but abnormal malpresentations still occur, and one must be diligent and watching for them whenever possible.
Sometimes the calf is rolled partially upside down and needs to be manipulated somewhat to facilitate a normal delivery. Intervening on time is the difference between a live and dead calf. Putting calves in sternal recumbency (sitting up facilitates breathing — but no hanging of calves) and having oxygen and/or a respiratory stimulant prescribed from your veterinarian can help with calves you have just got out in time. The cow is made to calve on her own but sometimes early intervention is necessary.
Lots has been written about colostrum but you should give colostrum any time there has been tough, or delayed calving, and also when a calf with a swollen face, twins, has a very sluggish suckle reflex (when you put your fingers in their mouth 10 to 20 minutes after birth), chilled calves, or when mother has very large teats or for a multitude of other reasons. This comes either in milking the cow (check cow for patency, mastitis, blocked teats — so check all four teats) or dried products such as HeadStart.
This helps initially with energy and vigour but we all know a colostrum-deprived calf is prone to diarrhea and pneumonia (even if it reaches weaning and beyond). Adequate colostrum in the first few hours is critical. Inadequate sucking or if the calf looks gaunt or can’t find the teat are good reasons to instantly supplement. Colostrum absorption rapidly declines after four to six hours but even if supplemented eight to 24 hours after birth, it may do some good.
Diarrhea, pneumonia and navel infection are the three most common ailments of young calves and if caught early, can be successfully treated. Prevention is the best approach, so most producers scour vaccinate their calves and for this, I consider timing before calving to be critical.
Intranasal respiratory vaccines (such as ONCE PMH IN for bacteria and INFORCE for viruses) have been on the market for several years. If cows are given viral vaccines to prevent against abortions, this protection should spill over into the colostrum as well.
If one suspects pneumonia (the first signs usually being a runny nose, slight depression and, of course, a temperature), your veterinarian can prescribe antimicrobials to reduce the fever. Often one shot is all that is necessary, but it’s good to check the calf the next day.
A quick intervention has a very good prognosis on most leg breaks that can be cast and haven’t broken through the skin. High breaks can be splinted with decent prognosis. If intestinal accidents such as a torsion or herniation of intestines are recognized immediately, surgery can save the day. Generally the veterinarian can give you a prognosis so you know when the odds are in your favour.
Here’s to an uneventful spring everyone. But if needed, hopefully these tips will help ensure the survivability of more calves.