Calving time

Although it may not seem so, the perinatal period is the most risky period in the life of a calf. Getting a live calf on the ground is crucial in all our books, however ensuring the calf doesn’t contract disease when it gets there is another imperative battle to be fought.


How do I optimise my chances to get the calf out alive?

Perinatal morbidity and mortality can rise from poorer management of the dry cow, mistakes during calving or immediately after birth. Such problems include lack of air to the calf, trauma during birth, congenital infections and deficiencies and navel infections. Approximately 90 % of calves that die during the perinatal period are alive at the onset of calving. To avoid this, it is vital to have a simple protocol to follow at both herd level and for individual cases that may arise. It is always advisable to consult your veterinarian prior to implementing these protocols to ensure the most easily followed protocol that is optimal for cow and calf well-being has been laid out.

What can I do for the cow?

Management on the cow side begins prior to calving. It is important that the cow calves down at the correct body condition score (BCS). Optimal BCS at calving is 3.0 to 3.5 (on a scale of 1 to 5). To maximise the chances of this her BCS should be recorded at drying off. As a general rule of thumb, cows will put on 0.25 of a BCS over an eight-to-ten week dry period on average quality silage. Cows in poor body condition at drying off may need supplementation to increase her condition for calving. If the cows is too thin at calving in increases her chances of fertility issues and decreased milk yield among others. If a cow is too fat at calving it increases the risk of dystocia, stillbirths, metabolic issues such a milk fever and ketosis.

Other important things to remember for the cow at calving is her stress and comfort, particularly with heifers. Moving a cow prior to calving rather than during calving decreases stress on the cow which decreases dystocia. Calving with plenty of space in a deep bedded pen decreases stress, the possibility of the cow getting stuck, or calving up against a wall and aids the cow to have a grip on the floor.

What can I to do for the calf during parturition?

Monitoring the cows progress during calving is a large part of keeping the calf alive. Assistance too early and assistance too late can both lead to problems. It is important to note that a heifer tends to take longer to calve than a cow. There are various stages of calving, the first stage is the longest but can vary. During this time cows remain restless, usually with their tails raised. This can last for 12 hours. Examining the cow during this time can prolong the stage, delaying her moving to the next stage. After stage one things should visibly progress but it can take another few hours.

What are the signs that something is wrong?

If after the cow is given time and space during stage one, she hasn’t advanced to abdominal contractions an examination can be conducted to check if her cervix has dilated. If there is a delay from when the allantochorion (first bag) bursts to the appearance of the amnion or hooves it may indicate a problem such as an overly large calf or maldisposition of the calf. Many farmers try to rectify problems themselves prior to calling their veterinarian which can result in increased perinatal mortality. If the cow is in difficulty a vet should be called sooner rather than later to reduce losses.

Why is Hygiene so important?

The calf can pick up infection regardless of whether the cow is visibly sick or not. Along with potential subclinical infections the cow may have such as Johne’s disease, and IBR the cow can shed infections which she is resistant to but the calf is not. These are very common problems in calves and include rotavirus and cryptosporidiosis. Disease accumulate in the calving pen regardless of whether the pen is cleaned regularly. The accumulation is drastically greater if the pen is not cleaned out regularly and the risk of clinical infection in the calf is multiplied greatly. Diseases are shed by the fluids of the cow as well as the cow faeces. The calf has three portals of infection at birth – the nose, the mouth and the navel. The air in the calving pen, the straw, the cows’ body and her fluids are cause for illness to the calf. As farm size is increases, the risk of infection to calves increases.

How do I decrease the risk of the disease?

Ensuring calving pens are cleaned out regularly decreases the build-up of diseases which decreases the. Using a deep bedding of straw absorbs moisture. Remove the calf from the cow to a deep bedded dry pen. Disinfect navel with solution such as 10% iodine solution. Feed colostrum ASAP.

Why is it best to remove the calf from the cow as soon as possible after birth?

The period immediately after birth is the time during which the calf is most susceptible to disease. The cow contains multitudes of diseases which she could pass on to the calf at a time the calf cannot fight these infections. These diseases include Johne’s disease, IBR, Mycoplasma, Rotavirus, Cryptosporidia and more. Additionally, the sooner the calf is taken from the cow, the less time they have to form a bond. Once a bond is formed removal of the calf will be stressful however removal prior to a bond developing will leave bot the cow and calf indifferent of the event.

Why is it beneficial to weigh the calf at birth?

Weighing the calf at birth can be beneficial to choosing how much colostrum to feed the calf, particularly in times of limited supply. Moreover, in crossbred herds the weight of the calf can be drastically different and so their colostrum needs will also differ greatly. Weighing the calf at birth can also help to identify their true ADG from birth to each milestone such as weaning, 6 months, first housing, breeding, etc.

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