cattle stress

This historically challenging El Niño winter and early spring continues kicking some livestock producers in the gut, even weeks after newborn calves are on the ground. In addition to the devastating Nebraska flooding and its horrific impact on livestock, other producers not directly affected by that flooding report grappling with calf stress, a lingering condition from the relentless onslaught of El Niño’s frigid cold, wind chills and massive snowpack — which hit from late February into March.

“This winter has been the result of a triad of weather features — an emerging El Niño, a weak Arctic Oscillation, and an active Madden Julian (pattern),” explained Mary Knapp, assistant state climatologist, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan. “The emerging El Niño favors wetter than normal conditions. The weak Arctic Oscillation favors repeated polar vortex, with incursion of cold Arctic air into the Plains. The active Madden Julian results in frequent storms making their way across the U.S. As these continue, stress on livestock and those caring for them also continues.”

Indeed, and veterinarians in the central Plains are urging livestock producers to remain vigilant and continue frequently checking both newborn calves and their mommas for symptoms they may not typically deal with in a normal calving season.

This rugged El Niño winter, which quickly morphed into a demanding spring with its frosty temperatures, rapid melting, mud lakes and frequent parade of storm systems, is triggering the need for critical awareness, weeks after calves are born.

With the extreme wet and cold conditions, some of the mothers weren’t motivated to lick and dry the calves off, to stimulate them to get up and nurse.

Producers have lost some calves to the winter’s grip, even weeks later. In a recent case, a two-week old calf that died had no early signs of problems. An autopsy helped glean information.

Signs of calf distress:

“If a calf is skinny, or emaciated like a recent one was, that’s a sign. If it’s sucking too well, that could be a sign of a problem. Also, if it sucks and then lays down again, that is also bad,” said Dr. Rick Holloway, DVM, Animal Clinic in Belleville, Kan.

Safely feeding a calf:

If a momma isn’t immediately “claiming” her calf, and a producer needs to intervene, it’s important to feed an esophageal tube down the calf’s left side, but never laying the calf on its side.

“So, after you feed the calf, keep them propped up. I would never let a calf lay on its side after I ‘tubed’ them. I always make sure they’re sitting upright for at least a couple of hours,” Holloway advised. “Otherwise, that liquid goes into the respiratory tract, and they get ‘aspiration pneumonia,’ and ... they literally drown.”

If a calf cannot stay up on its sternum, they need to be propped up, Holloway said.

He also recommends more routinely checking the mommas through this uniquely challenging weather season.

Signs of cow distress:

If a momma cow’s udder is:

 Misshapen

 Not uniform

 Low hanging

All are signs to have a vet check it, or ask about getting milk sample strips.

If a momma cow isn’t immediately claiming her newborn in the early spring chill, and a producer needs to assist, it’s vital to warm up the calf.

“You need to get the core body temperature warmed up, and continue to warm them until the extremities (legs) warm up,” said Dale Grotelueschen, DVM, director of the Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center, UNL, at Clay Center, Neb.

Being chilled can also result in lower levels of colostral absorption.

“So, even though calves may be given enough, they may not absorb the colostral protein as well as if they weren’t chilled, so that’s a complication we need to monitor, because we know that calves which have compromised colostral absorption, are at greater risk of scours and pneumonia,” cautioned Grotelueschen.

There’s also concern this year for a higher risk of calf diarrhea and respiratory disease, because the exposure to calf diarrhea agents increases from cows shedding them into the environment and onto calves.

“So, I’d urge ranchers to have a plan in case calf diarrhea breaks out. We know that risk increases as the calving season goes along,” Grotelueschen said. “Epidemics often start to occur about three weeks or so into the calving season.”

Grotelueschen recommends “The Sandhill Calving System” for ranchers, which involves moving pregnant animals periodically to clean calving grounds to reduce risk of diarrhea epidemics.

Amy Hadachek can be reached at

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