Key points for a healthy calving season within the suckler herd
February 1, 2023
Calving is one of the busiest and most stressful times on the farm with day and night checks becoming normal for some time. A lot of sleepless nights and little or no time off can often lead things being missed or forgotten about.
Dominic Mason, CAFRE Beef & Sheep Development Adviser, comments that there are key areas that need attention in an effort to keep calving issues and disease at bay in order to have a successful calving season with minimal stress.
Cow Body Condition Score (BCS) and dry cow management
The target for BCS at calving is 2.5-3.0, anything lower can have an impact on return to oestrus and potential colostrum quality. Higher BCS could result in difficult calving and subsequent slower return to oestrus.
Target dry cows with silage quality that is suitable for her stage of pregnancy. Average quality silage with a 65+ D value fed ad-lib should be adequate. Remember the foetus gains between 75-80% of its total birth weight in the last 3 months of pregnancy.
Appetite decreases closer to calving so make sure energy and protein content is suitable for this period. Protein is important especially for the production of antibodies, which the calf with absorb during feeding from good quality colostrum.
Anti-scour vaccines should be given well in advance of calving making sure to follow manufacturers guidelines. Remember these vaccines will only be of benefit if the new born calf receives adequate colostrum from its vaccinated mother, otherwise known as passive immunity.
Dry cow minerals are important and should be fed for at least 6-8 weeks prior to calving. Supplementation of these minerals will aid in reducing problems around calving such as retained placentas etc.
It is beneficial to have the cows tails clipped pre calving as this will reduce the amount of dirt and faeces on the tail and subsequently the udder and legs. This reduces the chances of ingestion by the new born calf while trying to suck at first.
A few days prior to calving, try to have the cows on straw close to the calving pens in an effort to reduce the stress of moving at the time of calving. This will also increase hygiene levels at the point of calving with cows on fresh clean straw.
Facilities fit for purpose
Adequate calving pens are a must at this time of the year. The recommendation is one calving pen per 10 cows for a 12 week calving period.
Both ease of movement to and from feed/water space as well as size need to be thought of. Aim for a pen size of 4m x 4m.
Proper cleaning and disinfecting needs consideration with a good supply of clean dry bedding at all times.
Be sure to have the proper equipment at hand such as arm length gloves and lube as well as some form of restraining the cow in the case where assistance is required.
A calving gate is a must on all farms that are calving cows as health and safety is paramount for everyone involved. A calving gate should be hung that the left hand side of the cow can be accessed in the case of a caesarean. Hanging this way also leaves the facilities better suited for right handed workers.
Make sure that the pens are equipped with lights, well ventilated but free from damp and draughts.
Have facilities available to allow easy access to fresh hot and cold running water for hygiene purposes. Again, a must in a situation where a caesarean is required.
Calf management at birth
Once calved, dip or spray the calves navel with iodine to cleanse and start the dehydration process of this open wound allowing it to close over.
Get the calf sucking the dam as soon as possible after birth. It is vital that sufficient colostrum is consumed within the first 4-6 hours after birth to build up the calf’s immune system via passive immunity and help prevent disease. After this time the calf’s ability to absorb these antibodies decreases and ceases around 24 hours after birth. Passive immunity depends on the colostrum/antibody volume consumed.
Aim to feed the calf 8% of its body weight of colostrum from its mother within the first 3 hours. This is the equivalent of 3 litres for a 40kg calf.
Ideally have the calf sucking to stimulate the sucking reflex and bond between cow and calf. If not possible milk the cows colostrum by hand into a clean jar and bottle feed it using a teat or use a stomach tube if required.
Watch the calf to make sure that it is in fact getting onto the teat and sucking. In most cases the calf will suck everything from the cows brisket to her tail before it actually gets onto the teat and gets a belly full of colostrum. In this situation the calf can ingest faeces, containing disease causing bacteria before it has had a chance to consume antibody rich colostrum.
Records mean everything at this time of the year. Record as much as you can including calving duration, time to get up and suck as well as time spent sucking. These could all be very useful points of reference if veterinary intervention is required later.
Attention to detail is key. Keep an eye on the new born calf and make sure that the bond is there with the cow and the calf is sucking regularly. Especially with heifers.
Have on hand items such as a thermometer to check temperatures and electrolytes in the case of a calf dehydrating.
If in doubt consult your vet sooner rather than later in the case where you feel a calf is not in full health.
In cases where faecal or blood samples are recommended to be taken from the calf by your vet, take the advice as you never know what it can show up.
A lot can happen at calving time, not only to the cow and calf but also the farmer. All measures should be put in place where possible to reduce any potential incidents or near misses. Keep on top of nutrition, this will have a huge impact not only on calving ease and calf quality but also colostrum quality and volume which is required for a healthy, thriving calf. Remember plan ahead and always think SAFE!