7 Tips to Get Ready for Calving Season

Prepping equipment, cow nutrition and vaccinations are just a few things to consider. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Spring calving season is just around the corner, and depending how late cows and heifers are in gestation, it could be arriving sooner rather than later. To get ready for calving, cow-calf producers have a number of considerations to take into account.

Here are seven tips as well as thoughts and recommendations from Extension beef specialists and veterinarians located across the U.S.:

1. Equipment Preparation

Russ Daly, a South Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and state public health veterinarian, recommends taking a day for preparation during the winter, well ahead of when calves should start arriving.

“That first calf usually comes a little quicker than people think sometimes or are ready for,” Daly says.

Take an inventory of supplies and purchases made for additional items needed such as tags, taggers, milk replacer and OB lube.

Make sure the equipment is in working order recommends Sandy Johnson, Kansas State University Extension beef specialist. This would include items such as calf pullers, OB chains or straps.

“We may need to replace something. You might have forgotten that from the condition they were in at the end of last year,” Johnson says.

Esophageal tube feeders would also need to be looked at, particularly if they were not cleaned well or are worn out.

“We’d like to have one of those that we’re dedicating for healthy calves and one for sick calves, so we’re not transferring something back and forth between calves,” Johnson adds.

2. Rotate Pastures

The Sandhills Calving System has been in use for a number of years around the country after originating in Nebraska. The system of moving cows that have not yet calved onto fresh pasture several weeks at a time has been shown to be effective at preventing illness on calving grounds.

In the Southeast, the method hasn’t been as quickly adopted, but Lew Strickland, University of Tennessee Extension veterinarian, advises cow-calf producers to consider it in the region.

“I recommend just having a clean calving spot,” Strickland says. “Producers can rotate their cows on to clean pastures, just so that they are preventing diseases such as scours and Johne’s disease.”

Important factors of a Sandhill Calving System is having enough access to fresh pasture, along with accurate records for when calves should be arriving and which cows have calved.

“It relies upon a defined calving season and knowing when those cows are going calve. I often tell my producers that a 60- to 90-day calving window works best,” Strickland says.

It is advised to pregnancy check cows ahead of time to get an idea of when calves should start arriving.

3. Record Keeping

Before starting the calving season, look at your record-keeping system. It might be time to upgrade from a pen and scrap paper to a spread sheet on the computer or a calving app through your smartphone.

“The more information you have about that calf, the more your vet, Extension people, nutritionist are going to be able to help you out,” Daly says.

Pairing up cows with calves via an ear tag is a good place to start. Then, getting more details taken care of such as administering antibiotics to a sick calf or grafting a twin onto an orphaned cow can help make sense of the situation down the road should larger problems occur.

4. Cow Nutrition

Don’t let the third trimester sneak up on you, especially when it comes to nutrition.

“The success of the calving and subsequent breeding, and expense we have with that can be largely driven by how well we manage that cow in the third trimester,” Johnson says.

Nutrition should allow for the calf growing in-utero and for the cow to maintain or increase body condition if needed. “Timeliness is really our best friend in making sure those cows achieve the needed weight gain prior to calving,” Johnson relays.

Higher protein and energy diets might be needed to keep cows going depending on the forage base.

Also, feeding cows during the evening has shown to produce more calves during the daylight hours. There isn’t exact data on when to start feeding cows to set them up prior to calving season, but Johnson believes two or more weeks in advance should net positive results.

“Not only do we have daylight, but temperatures tend to be a little warmer during the day. So trying to take advantage of both of those things can be helpful to our success,” Johnson says.

5. Sanitize Facilities

Calving facilities might vary for different operations if they are calving on pastures, in dry lots or in a barn. No matter where calves are born it needs to be as clean as possible, Johnson says.

“Cleanliness is one of the most important things that we need to keep in mind when calving and giving some type of assistance,” Johnson says.

Disinfecting equipment frequently and changing bedding are important to preventing diseases such as scours during calving.

6. Colostrum on Hand

Colostrum is a major part of getting a calf off to a successful start. When calving difficulties occur or a heifer isn’t letting down enough milk, it is important to have some backup colostrum on hand.

If there is a dairy in the area, there is the possibility to buy some fresh colostrum directly from the farm. Strickland recommends only purchasing from herds that have good health protocols and are free of Johne’s disease. It also isn’t a bad idea to pasteurize the colostrum before feeding.

For those who don’t have access to fresh colostrum, dry, powdered colostrum replacer is an alternative that should be available through a local vet clinic or feed store.

“Those are things that can be reconstituted right away with water, you don’t have to worry so much about milking a cow,” Daly says. The colostrum replacer powders have a full dose of immunoglobulins that a calf would need.

Both Daly and Strickland recommend using the replacers rather than a supplemental colostrum powder to ensure a full amount of antibodies are received.

7. Vaccinations

Depending on what stage of gestation your cows are currently in it might be good to run them through the chute for a pregnancy test. While they’re in the chute, vaccinations could be administered, helping boost the immunity for the cow. Daly says you should discuss a vaccination protocol with your veterinarian to help determine a good health program for your herd.

The scours vaccine might be one to consider, but it might need to be administered closer to calving to help boost the colostrum. Daly advises giving vaccines about five weeks out from calving to get the best results for adding more antibodies to colostrum through the cow. However, Daly recognizes it might not be optimal to work with the schedule of pregnancy checking. “It’s hard to cookie cutter out a vaccine program for everybody,” Strickland says.

Variables such as being a closed herd, adding outside females to the herd or fence line commingling with other cattle could all play a role in what type of vaccine protocols to pick.

Strickland recommends a respiratory vaccine that includes BVD, IBR, PI3 and BRSV would be a good start. Other vaccines to cover vibrio and leptospirosis might be used, too.

Strickland cautions blackleg has become an issue on some Tennessee farms. To help lower the risk of blackleg and related disease, Strickland says a booster shot of Clostridium should be considered.

“It’s cheap, it’s easy and it provides protection,” Strickland says. “That way she puts those extra antibodies in the colostrum to give calf protection until calf is ready to be vaccinated itself.”