Snowstorms in April of 2018 and 2019 caused difficult calving conditions, and poor quality grass in 2019 could make things even worse for calving this spring.
Cow-calf operators have their work cut out for them, so Dr. Joe Armstrong, DVM with the University of Minnesota Beef Team, provided a refresher on pre- and post-calving practices. He made these comments during the recent Cow-Calf Days held across the region.
Armstrong started out talking about calf scours. In many cases, the illness is an indication of challenging conditions and management decisions that need to be made.
Here’s a checklist of items producers may want to double check if calf scours have been a concern in recent years:
Length of calving season
Scours tend to increase as the calving season lengthens. Cows and older calves continually shed pathogens that are picked up by younger calves. If the calving season will be drawn out, consider finding new areas for cows to calve every one or two weeks.
Cleanliness of calving area
Pathogens can build up over the years and some can remain in the environment for extended periods of time. Calving barns need to be cleaned and kept dry.
The most recent research suggests cows need to be maintained at a correct body conditioning score all year. This helps the cow prepare for an increasing nutritional plane in the final trimester, produce quality colostrum and acquire adequate nutrients to produce high quality milk during lactation.
Armstrong reminds producers to stack hay in a way that gives access to the hay of the correct nutritional value when the cows need it. The most nutritious hay needs to be available in late gestation, so the lower-nutritional cutting needs to be available earlier in gestation. Trying to make up nutrition by placing cows on corn during the last one or two months of gestation requires a drastic change to the rumen bugs. Armstrong said feeding corn is a viable option as long as the addition is done slowly.
“I would say that on the beef cow side, if you put up good enough quality hay, you can feed just hay,” he said. “Corn silage is great, especially if you can make it — 2019 was interesting. But if you have it, great. I like to feed corn silage or some other supplement to hay, so I can force feed my minerals.”
With the good quality feed available in the region, it’s very easy to get beef cows too fat, and that’s just as bad as allowing cows to lose conditioning, he added.
“If your cow is too thin, and you feed her hard the last couple of months, you’ll have birthweight issues,” he said. “This is a year-around project. Body condition has to be stable pretty much the whole year.”
Two feet of bunk space per head
In northern climates, it can be difficult to provide as much bunk space as cattle need. Feeding cows and heifers separately is one option if bunk space is limited. Armstrong has had success with concrete bunks with railroad ties and guardrails. A 60-foot bunk that can be fed from both sides will provide enough bunk space for 60 cows.
Vaccinations to gestating cows
Target the scour pathogens that calves have been troubled with in the past.
Colostrum, colostrum, colostrum
Getting quality colostrum into the calf in the first 4-6 hours will go a long way to raising a healthy calf. The calf’s gut will only absorb circulating Immunoglobulin G (IgG) in the colostrum during the first 24 hours. At least 100 grams of IgG antibody are needed by the calf.
“If the cow’s in good body condition, if she’s had the correct energy and protein late in gestation, that strong calf will want to get up right away, wants to suckle, and that’s all a factor of the cow’s nutrition,” he said.
Keep cows, calves out of mud, manure
Dirty cow bellies and udders are a continual source of pathogen exposure for calves. Manure contains many of the pathogens that will cause scours.
Handling equipment is ready ahead of calving
If a heifer is not allowing her calf to nurse, a squeeze chute can keep handlers safe as they assist the calf in nursing. Getting colostrum into the calf releases oxytocin in the mother that aids in transitioning from gestating to nursing a calf. Defecation from the calf will smell like the mother’s milk and will further help with bonding. If the calf does not drink colostrum from its dam, a colostrum replacer should be fed. Armstrong prefers a replacer with 150 grams of IgG.
Clean water easily accessible to young calves
Young calves can drink a lot of water, and they need water to stay hydrated. They require easy access or they will drink from puddles that are contaminated by feces.
Shortening up the calving window
The biggest factor affecting calf weights at weaning is when they were born. Calves born early almost always weigh more than later-born pen mates at weaning.
“I think 85% calving in the first 21 days is very achievable,” Armstrong said. “I’ve worked with a lot of people and we got there by playing the long game. Great nutrition year around. This number was achieved without AI, without synching cows, without any more bulls. All I did was made sure I took care of my cows really, really well.”
The big factor in shortening that calving window is culling every year, he added. If calf scours are causing problems, Armstrong suggests maybe selling some cows for better control of the environment.
“The bank hates to hear this. I know some of you hate to hear this, but if space is limited, maybe you should have fewer calves,” Armstrong recommended.
Andrea Johnson reports for the Minnesota Farm Guide. Reach her at email@example.com.