Russ Daly: Make spring calving easier by preparing right now

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

Just as the bad memories have almost completely faded, I’m going to bring them up again. I’m speaking of this past spring’s calving season

The cool wet weather, interrupted only by the weekly snowstorm, made it miserable for cattle producers working to get their baby calves off to a good start. When calves did survive the challenges of their first days, they were then more prone to diseases such as calf scours and clostridial infections. In many areas, droughty forages were all that was available to feed to cows in late gestation – meaning vitamin and nutrient levels weren’t sufficient for cows, and subsequently their calves, compared to previous years.

It’s hard to imagine next year being the same or worse. Even though some say we’re in for a warmer, drier season coming up, Mother Nature could just as easily throw us another bad one.

Now – not the frozen month or two prior to calving – is the best time to plan and make changes for next season. Clearly, we are beholden to the weather during calving season. But there are a great many factors that we can control – factors that could mean the difference between a successful calving season and a miserable one.

We can control where our cows and heifers calve out. Sometimes there aren’t a lot of options, but I feel this is the single most important factor affecting the risk of disease, particularly scours, in baby calves. Diseases in baby calves aren’t caused by germs flying in from another farm. They’re caused by germs in their environment, from the manure deposited there by cows and other calves. The more restricted, or more “used” the area is, the more of these germs will be there – to the point where the sheer numbers of them overwhelm even an adequate calf immune system.

Therefore, one project for this fall should be to critically evaluate your calving area. First, can you split up calving pastures so that you can apply the principles of the Sandhills calving system? Begin calving in one area, then move pregnant cows to clean areas as the calving season progresses. Can you expand your current calving area into adjacent crop ground, for example? As a reminder, calving should take place on ground separate from where the cows have wintered. Additionally, what can you do to make it easier to clean out and re-bed your calving area, especially if that consists of a calving barn?

In recent years, I’ve observed a trend toward scours problems being increasingly caused by protozoal germs such as coccidiosis and cryptosporidiosis. We don’t have vaccines for these germs, and control is almost exclusively based on limiting the exposure of the baby calves to manure in the environment. These bugs can survive for months in the moist cool conditions of our calving areas.

I think one of the reasons for that shift is that we’re doing a better job with another calf health intervention we can control – that of scours vaccinations for pregnant heifers and cows. These vaccines typically include E. coli, rotavirus, and coronavirus, all of which are still major threats. Slacking off on scours vaccination, especially for heifers and younger cows, would help their resurgence. Take some time this fall to review your choice of product and timing with your veterinarian.

Another huge factor affecting the health of new calves is that of their mothers’ nutrition, particularly in their final three months of pregnancy. Are you planning ahead to ensure cows receive enough protein, energy, and vitamin supplementation during that time? Doing so might mean an objective evaluation of the nutritional content of your hay and other winter feedstuffs, so that the proper supplementation can be given. Even though this year’s hay crop might be of better quality than last years’, it still pays to know where you stand. Skimping on protein, energy, vitamins and minerals leads to weak calves and poor colostrum, two things a calf born in the Dakota springtime just doesn’t need.

Calving time brings with it a ton of hard work. Shifting some of that effort to planning during this time of year will make things easier for cattle producers and their animals come that time of year.