Having a profitable cow/calf herd often comes down to selling more pounds of calf. This can be done by increasing weaning weights or by backgrounding calves, but you can also increase pounds sold by having more calves to sell. Calf survivability is highly influenced by pre-calving management.
Pre calving management is preparation so both the cow and the calf have a better chance of a successful delivery. 70% of calves that are lost are either born dead or die within 24 hours of calving – most often the cause is calving difficulties.
Two things that should be done far in advance to prepare for calving is to take pelvic measurements of your heifers and selecting bulls with calving ease scores that match your cows or heifers. Heifers should have pelvic measurements done pre-breeding, and the most common recommendation is that the pelvic opening should be 160-170 cm2 (for example, 13 cm x 13 cm = 169 cm2).
Calving ease bulls should be selected for replacement heifers, and probably for some smaller cows. It is recommended that the bulls to be used on heifers have a calving ease EPD of 8-12 or higher (depending on breed).
Body condition of the cows is mostly important for rebreeding after calving, but proper body condition also allows cows to have an easier time calving. Too little condition and they may lack the energy reserves to get through the work of calving; too much condition and they may experience calving problems due to fat deposited along the birth canal. Proper condition is considered to be 5.5-6 for cows and 6.5-7 for first calf heifers.
Producers may be concerned that feeding too much during the last trimester can result in bigger calves and more calving difficulty. Research at the USDA Meat Animal Research Center indicates that underfeeding cows to reduce calf birthweight actually increased the cases of calving difficulty (due to the cow lacking energy reserves) and also resulted in delayed rebreeding. To get proper body condition without putting too much into the calf, get cows in proper condition during mid-gestation and then simply maintain body condition during the last trimester (please also see the article on Winter Cow Nutrition).
Calf health starts long before the calf is born. Cow nutrition and vaccination management will have a huge impact on the nutrient reserves the calf carries with it when it’s born, and the quality of the colostrum it will consume. Virtually all calf scour and respiratory problems can be reduced or eliminated by proper cow nutrition and vaccination pre-calving. In particular, copper, selenium, Vit E and Vit A are moved from the cow to the unborn calf in the last 3 months pre-calving and are stored in the calf’s liver until the calf starts to graze on new grass – all of these are very important for immunity and vitality and they need a sufficient supply to last from calving to turnout.
To prepare cows and calves, the vaccination protocol should include a scour vaccine, and a pre-calving respiratory vaccine. The best time for pre-calving vaccination is 6-8 weeks pre-calving to effect colostrum quality. If the herd has a history of calf scour or pneumonia challenges, you may also include trace mineral and vitamin injections, or include higher vitamin and chelated or organic trace minerals in the cow’s late gestation ration.
It’s also a good idea to have some colostrum replacement on hand before calving starts. Be sure to buy the high quality replacement products that are high in IgG numbers and are made from actual colostrum. You don’t want to have an orphan calf or twins or a poor milk producing heifer late Saturday night and have no colostrum on hand.
Finally, to prepare for calving be sure you have all of the hardware ready to go. Be sure the chains, calf puller, tube, head gate, and any other equipment is clean and in good working order. If you calve inside, be sure the shed is cleaned thoroughly, put down a good layer of lime and top this with at least 2 feet of clean bedding.
One way to help ensure a healthy calf crop is let QLF work with you with your cow nutrition program. Contact your local QLF Beef Specialist or District Manager for more useful information.