"Research indicates that 57% of mortality is seen in the first 24 hours and 75% within 7 days of birth," states Dr. Mark Hilton in the Calf Management section of Merck Veterinary Manual. Dr. Hilton regularly contributes to Beef Magazine, is an emeritus clinical professor of beef production medicine from Purdue University, and a Senior Technical Consultant at Elanco Animal Health.

Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take in calf management to optimize calf health from birth to weaning on your operation and increase your weaning weights. A veterinarian or Cooperative Extension specialist can visit your farm about one month before calving season and make recommendations on improving your cattle equipment, squeeze chute, and pens, including your maternity pen, where cattle are kept in the days leading up to calving, and sometimes afterward.

In some cases, cows and calves are kept separate from the rest of the herd until the calf is sucking consistently, or if the cow and/or calf need extra attention after the birth. Ideally, you can combine this veterinarian visit with another planned visit to your operation.

One of the best things you can do for your calf health is to ensure that the heifer or cow is at a body condition score (BCS) of 6 prior to calving, and has proper nutrition throughout her pregnancy and while raising the calf. Practice applying BCS scores to your cattle regularly, and work with your veterinarian to hone your skills. Many online resources are available to explain the scale and ideal cattle at each level.

Nutritional supplementation prior to calving can improve the colostrum that the calf receives. Forages should be checked for nutritional value to ensure needs of the cows are being met. Work with your veterinarian, a nutritionist, or Cooperative Extension specialist to evaluate your herd health and nutrition plans.

Calf management plans should include a follow-up visit by your veterinarian two to three weeks after calving begins. Keep an eye on the BCS of your cows throughout the time they're raising calves to determine if supplemental forage or minerals are needed.

Veterinarian recommended tips for getting and keeping your calf health on point include:

  1. Keep accurate herd records. These should include any calf morbidity, treatments administered, vaccine types and dates, and other pertinent information. Your record keeping system can be as simple or complex as you prefer, anything from online software for herd management, to a date book where you write down treatments, illnesses, and death.
  2. Vaccinate using veterinary recommendations. You should vaccinate the heifer or cow pre-calving, and then vaccinate the calf as well. Consult your veterinarian for the recommended vaccines you need to use. Examples of vaccines administered prior to calving include rotavirus, coronavirus, E coli and Clostridium perfringens. All vaccinations administered should be part of your record-keeping system.
  3. Inspect calves regularly. There is no better way to catch disease early than by regularly inspecting your cattle. Train all cattle handlers on signs to look for in disease or sickness, and treat calves early to prevent stunted growth or death. Establishing a working relationship with your veterinarian can improve herd health through training programs for handlers, or preventative veterinary practices that save money in the long run when compared to calf morbidity or culling cows.
  4. Scours should not be an issue for your calves; it can be eliminated from your herd. Vaccinating your cows and heifers prior to calving can help reduce scours, as can many other management shifts, including the timing of calving season, rotating calving pens, and separating cows from heifers. Consider implementing the Sandhills calving system developed by the University of Nebraska for calving area rotation.
  5. Use medications and dewormers as instructed. Not following the recommendations of the administering veterinarian or manufacturer can increase resistance to the product, or lead to a recurrence of disease in the animal. Take care when considering using topical or pour-on medications on cows that are still in calf. Always consult your veterinarian if unsure.
  6. Practice biosecurity at all locations on your operation. Separate sick animals from healthy ones to minimize the spread of disease. Disinfect any areas where sick animals have been after they return to the herd, and prior to new animals being placed in the area. One key practice is tending to sick calves after healthy calves have been handled, and using separate boots and coveralls with calves. These simple steps by handlers can reduce potential disease transmission.
  7. Consider creep feeding prior to weaning to reduce stress and disease. Ideally you should implement the creep feeding system three to four weeks prior to the weaning date. Moving your weaning date up from the traditional 205 days to somewhere between 150 and 170 days is also a more efficient use of forages, and improves health and BCS of the cows prior to winter.
  8. Control the flies. They spread disease. Even though it's winter, talk to your feed dealer now about adding an insect growth regulator to your cow mineral to inhibit fly production. You'll want to add it about one month before you expect flies to begin emerging. Ideally, your neighbors (if they are also livestock producers/owners) should be using fly predators or insect growth regulators as well for maximum control.

Calves are the future of your herd. Getting your calf health care on point can decrease expenses, increase weaning weights, and lead to larger profits for your operation. Adhering to the best management practices outlined in this article and working closely with your veterinarian can improve your herd health and make your calf care system a respected model for other producers.

A squeeze chute that can handle the tiniest calves and the largest bulls, without a single adjustment.

Spring, Fall, Summer or even Winter. What calving season is right for your operation?

Calf Management - Dr. W. Mark Hilton - Merck Veterinary Manual
Cow-calf health - Here's what you can do now - Dr. W. Mark Hilton, Beef Magazine
Veterinarian's best tips for cattle nutrition & health - Dr. W. Mark Hilton, Beef Magazine
Veterinary Medicine Extension - Washington State University
Healthy Fats for Healthy Cattle - John Maday - Bovine Veterinarian
Ten ideas to improve your herd's cattle health this year - Drovers

Images courtesy of Danielle Kristine Photography.

About the Author

Dana Charban, Manager of Content Strategies and Journalist for Arrowquip, catching black cow in Q-Catch 86 Series cattle chute

Dana Charban

As a small town girl from rural Manitoba, Dana Charban grew up around agriculture and farming her en...

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