Animal Health Matters: Calving in not-so-ideal conditions

Dr. Broc Mauch
Special to the Farm Forum
Dr. Broc Mauch, associate veterinarian at Animal Health Center in Redfield, South Dakota.

(Editor's note: Russ Daly, the writer of Animal Health Matters, is currently on vacation until May 2023. Guests columnists from the region will be writing this bi-weekly publication during his absence.)

This winter’s moisture is much needed after the dry end to the grazing year. Although it has been a hassle to clear the snow away and keep cattle fed and sheltered, pasture grass should be off to a good start when the snow melts.

One major obstacle is in the way of watching pairs go to grass: calving season. This year’s moisture, while truly a blessing, can lead to complications when keeping the newest members of the herd happy and healthy. As we look ahead to a potentially swampy spring, it’s important to make a few considerations prior to calving season.

The preparation for healthy calves begins several months before the first calf hits the ground. Cow health is vital when the goal is healthy calves. Body condition score (BCS) and vaccination history, combined with other factors, play a major role in colostrum development and overall calf health. Cows need to be in adequate body condition before calving, which is between 5 and 6 (out of 9). University of Nebraska Lincoln has a helpful article on how to body condition score (BCS) your beef cows and what condition they should be in throughout the year ( A major consideration of cow health is also the operation’s vaccination and animal health protocols which can vary from operation to operation. When considering your animal health protocols it is important to consider potential vitamin and mineral supplements as well. Be sure to consult your veterinarian to determine what kind and when to give vaccinations to obtain optimal health in your herd.

Environmental factors also play a major role in calf health. A major component of preventing diseases such as scours in calves is providing a dry place out of the elements. Sheltering calves from wind and moisture can be accomplished in several ways, whether that means purchasing a calf shelter or engineering your own shelter or windbreak. In addition to setting up a sheltered area for your calves, it’s important to add and maintain bedding to keep the space dry and warm. An article from the University of Minnesota suggests one way to determine if your bedding is adequate is to kneel in the bedding areas where calves lay. If your knees become soaked with moisture, it may be best to clean the area and apply new, dry bedding.

Another factor to consider when setting up calving pens is the location of feeding, watering, and bedding areas. If possible, avoid low spots where water can collect and cows can end up with muddy udders. South Dakota State University Extension cites one important reason to keep cows udders cleaner is that calves use scent to locate the udder and teats; a cow with dirty udders can cause a calf to struggle to nurse. In the process, they may also pick up pathogens from the mud and manure on the udders.

With all these factors in mind, we can’t forget the calf itself and what we can do for their health directly. The calf, from the moment it enters the world, is under threat from various viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents. Monitoring colostrum intake and navel health are two of the most important factors when achieving thrifty calves. Keeping colostrum replacers and supplements on hand is a good idea for the calves that don’t get adequate colostrum consumption in the first few hours of life. Colostrum replacer should be used for calves that have not had any colostrum intake, and colostrum supplements should be used for calves that have had some, but scant amounts of colostrum from their mothers. In addition to the other health benefits described above, keeping calves clean and dry helps prevent navel infections. Please be aware of potential supply issues when working with your

veterinarian to obtain colostrum or certain vaccines and antibiotics. This calving season it may be beneficial to stock up sooner rather than later.

I would like to highlight two pathogens of particular importance this calving season, the first being Clostridium perfringens Type A which causes inflammation of the abomasum, bloating, and diarrhea in calves. Currently, a commercially available Type A vaccine is not available. If you think your calves have a problem with Type A, a conversation with your veterinarian may be beneficial to determine if an autogenous Type A vaccine would work for your operation. Another pathogen with an increasing prevalence in calves on feed this winter has been coccidia or coccidiosis. Coccidiosis will be something to watch for in your calves that are around 30 days or older, with bloody diarrhea. There are a few methods which can be used to treat coccidiosis, so be sure to consult your veterinarian on the best health protocols for your calves this season.

This winter’s moisture has been a relief for many dry areas and although it will greatly benefit our herds come grass turnout, calving may be a bit more difficult this year because of it. There are ways around some of these troubles, although some change from the normal setup or practices may be required. That said, we are an industry of perseverance and I have no doubt that our producers will power through it just like many years before. Best of luck with your calving season this year!

Dr. Broc Mauch is an associate veterinarian with Animal Health Center, a veterinary clinic in Redfield, South Dakota.