Calving is an exciting time on the ranch, filled with optimism and new beginnings as your herd numbers expand. There may also be a sense of nervousness as the memories of past calving seasons, and the challenges they brought with them, creep into the back of your mind. Life rarely goes according to plan, especially when livestock are involved.

The good news is that you can prepare for the unexpected. This simplifies calving season, and ensures you’re ready for whatever situations arise during calving. We rounded up the top tips from around the industry on preparing for the unexpected in calving season.

  1. Body Condition Score (BCS) matters. Make sure your cattle are at a BCS of 5 or 6 prior to calving. Skinny cattle will mean lower quality colostrum and less immunity for your cattle. Cattle should also be vaccinated prior to calving, consult your veterinarian for recommendations.
  2. Good nutrition is vital. Cattle with better nutrition produce calves that are more vigorous, getting up to nurse quicker. This means they’re getting colostrum sooner, and building a stronger immune system. A nutritionist can help review your operation and make suggestions.
  3. Organize your supplies. Do you have ear tags, livestock markers, a scale, your record book, bottles, and replacement milk on hand? Make sure everything is in order, not expired, and ready to be picked up quickly when needed. Check your first aid kit too, and re-stock any supplies that are getting low.
  4. Set up your calving facility. For those of us in harsher climates, or calving during winter months, having a clean, dry area for calving with shelter is essential. Calves have a hard time regulating their body temperature, and wet, cold conditions can be detrimental. Clean out space in the barn for cows and calves that need special attention, or if some need to come inside during a blizzard or other adverse weather conditions. Ideally, your hospital area is only used for sick animals and disinfected regularly to minimize the spread of diseases. Make sure all animals have access to some sort of shelter during calving.
  5. Colostrum is essential. A calf needs one gallon of colostrum in their first four to six hours of life for proper immunity. Research has shown that calves that fail to consume enough quality colostrum at birth face more health and growth challenges. Make sure that you are monitoring calving areas, helping those new calves that are struggling. Purchase colostrum to have on hand for a worst-case scenario.
  6. Don’t be surprised by early calves. Occasionally, a first calf heifer or other cow may calve early. Even though you know when calving season should start, prepare a few weeks early in case one or more of your animals is operating on a different schedule.
  7. Watch out for difficulty calving. Whether it’s a first calf heifer, a seasoned producer with a large calf, or a calf presenting incorrectly in the birth canal, occasionally dystocia is unavoidable. Some situations can be handled on your own, especially if you are there early during calving to help. When in doubt, call your veterinarian. It’s always better for the cow and the calf to make the call earlier rather than later.
  8. Ask for help. Calving season places more demands on our time, and sometimes, it can be overwhelming. If you have more work than can be done in a day, or are trying to balance a non-ranch job with your operation, consider hiring temporary help for calving season. An extra pair of hands, or someone monitoring the herd while you’re hauling hay in the snow, or away at work can help prevent the unexpected, and save money in the long run.
  9. Prepare for orphans. While rare, you should be prepared for a cow to reject her calf, or, in a worst-case scenario, to lose a cow. The colostrum you purchased to have on hand will be needed for this calf. Keeping a bag of milk replacement on hand, and having a calf pen ready can make this situation more manageable.
  10. Actively defend against scours. Scours is influenced by the environment and management choices. Certain conditions, for example, a wet month, will increase the number of scours cases in your herd. Actively defend against scours through nutrition, sanitation/disinfecting, and regular observation of your herd. Separate animals with scours from others, care for them last for biosecurity purposes, and add electrolytes to combat dehydration. Consult your veterinarian for additional herd health strategies when dealing with scours.

Calving season is sure to throw you at least one curve ball, it always does. Preparing for the unexpected now can simplify calving season, lead to healthier livestock, and less stress for you.

References:
4 Tips to Prepare for Calving Season – Beef Magazine
A Preventative Herd Health Program: Checklist for Beef Producers – North Dakota State University
Beef Herd Health – Penn State Extension
Calf health and vaccinations are not synonymous – Beef Magazine
Control and Prevention of Disease in Feedlot Cattle – Merck Veterinary Manual
Get Ready for Calving – Canadian Cattleman
Health Management of Beef Cattle – University of Tennessee Extension
Prepare for the Unexpected this Calving Season – Progressive Cattleman