While calving is part of nature’s wonderful process, there can be an variety of factors that can influence the future health of these newborns.
“Having healthy calves takes planning,” said Dr. Claire Windeyer, an assistant professor of cattle health in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine Program.
Windeyer recently conducted a pair of webinars for the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) on the subject that were designed to advice producers on how best to prepare calves for a healthy start.
She explained that disease and weather can place stress on the calf, making it more difficult to maintain its health.
“First off, it all starts way back with the breeding and management of the cows,” stated Windeyer.
“Having a long calving season can increase the risk of disease, while pasture management is important in minimizing calves’ exposure to pathogens.”
In addition, Windeyer noted that monitoring pulled calves closely for their colostrum intake in order to prevent failed transfer of passive immunity may wind up saving producers in effort, time and lost money from poorly performing calves.
“The hope is to prevent issues from cropping up that could impact the end goal of maximizing returns with a reasonable cost of production,” she added.
Keeping good records helps in a variety of ways, but if used properly, can monitor herds and help producers evaluate what’s working well and where more can be done to maintain a smooth and profitable operation.
It also helps to optimize calf health through pasture management practices, according to Windeyer.
“Not calving on pastures that the cows over-wintered on can improve health outcomes because the pasture will be clean with as little contamination as possible,” she said.
Having a separate pasture for calving heifers will also assist producers, since these animals are more likely to experience problems.
Shelter and bedding to help calves, especially in a hard winter, is one big key to calf survival.
“I can’t over-emphasize how important adequate shelter and bedding can be,” Windeyer stated.
“Having deep straw to help protect calves from the cold and possible dampness can increase the temperature by as much as five degrees Celsius. And since dilution is the solution to pollution, moving a ground feed site each day will keep contamination down and spread the manure around the pasture.”
Another protection for calves is ensuring they get off to the best possible start. A calf needs that all important colostrum — first milk — within the first day.
In her research at the U of C, calves born through hard pulls as opposed to unassisted births are more likely to be impacted negatively with a far higher risk of not surviving.
“Those calves have a reduced suckle reflex and are less likely to drink on their own in the first four hours,” she noted.
“To get them off to their best start, they need that colostrum to ensure they get that passive immunity. It’s best for a calf to suckle, but a bottle is second best while a feeding tube is better than nothing as a last resort.”
A blood sample taken 24 hours after birth should show more than 10 grams per litre of antibodies, which can be achieved with about 200 grams of colostrum.
Exhaustion of the environment as well as too long of a calving season can impact calf health, as it can generate larger or longer exposure to pathogens.
“That first calf will be far less exposed than the one born 90 or 100 days later,” she said.
“We have found that for each additional week of calving, the mortality is 0.03 per cent between seven days and weaning. That may not sound like much, but if you have 700 cows, that’s one calf a week. And with prices where they are, that can hurt at the end of the day.”
To find out more or to check out the BCRC’s webinars, visit www.beefresearch.ca.