Calving in the cold

Farm Forum

Better cold than mud.

That’s the take of a couple of local ranchers who have started calving a few weeks ahead of the pack.

Chris Fischbach, who lives near Mansfield, and John Jung, whose ranch is northwest of Mina, say it’s easier to handle calves in the bitter cold than when it’s muddy.

Trouble for calves festers in the mud. A primary concern is that pathogens in mud can travel up the umbilical cord, get into the animal’s system and cause health problems. On the simpler end of the spectrum, the cold, wet and muddy conditions can stress the newborns.

But neither Fischbach nor Jung have noticed any major problems or diseases, at least in the early going.

Warren Rusche, a cow/calf field specialist with the South Dakota State University Extension Regional Center in Watertown, agrees. But, he said, most producers won’t start calving for a few weeks.

He said he has heard instances of heavier-than-normal birth weights because of the extreme winter cold.

Frigid weather can sometimes lead to bigger calves, Rusche said. The theory is that the cold forces more of a cow’s blood to flow to its core, including the uterus, he said. And that means calves get more nutrients and grow more. If they get too big, it can cause birthing problems, Rusche said. But that hasn’t been the case yet this year. So far things have gone well.

“As soon as I say that, there’s going to be someone who is having some problems, but I haven’t heard of any widespread issues,” he said.

Fischbach started calving 60 heifers in early February. The heifers are nearly finished, and things have gone well so far, he said. In another 10 days, he’ll start calving 150 cows.

The tips of some calves’ ears have frozen off because of the bitter cold, Fischbach said. But as calving problems go, that’s not a huge one.

“It’s been a brutal winter. We just haven’t had a break or a good thaw,” he said.

Rusche said some temperatures in the 40s or 50s would be nice before the heart of calving season hits. The downside, though, is that warmer temperatures bring mud and the health problems that come with it.

He’s heard of frost reaching as deep as six feet, so the thawing process could be lengthy. That there isn’t a lot of snow cover should help, he said.

The producers who started calving in February likely have the facilities needed to handle the bitter cold, Rusche said. They understand and are prepared for the cold in the second month of the year. But when the bitter conditions extend into late March and April, it gets miserable, he said. And that’s something nobody wants.

Jung has about 350 head of red Angus on the Lazy J Bar Ranch. And of the 200 head of cows and heifers that started calving halfway through last month, roughly a third have given birth, he said. He’s calving about 25 heifers, he said.

One reason he starts calving earlier than most others is because his land is flat. And the lack of drainage can lead to lots of mud, he said. He also wants the calves to be ready for the ranch’s annual New Year’s Eve sale.

Jung said he generally keeps newborns in the barn for the first day of their life, then there are outdoor shelters to protect them from the elements. But during this winter’s exceptionally cold stretches, he’s kept the calves inside a little longer than normal, he said.

Like Fischbach, Jung said the wind and cold have led to some calves losing the tips of their ears.

“It’s been a challenge,” Jung said of the weather.

“This has been a cold one,” Rusche said. “I’m ready for spring.”

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