March 08, 2021

Steckler: Why can’t they all survive?

By Teresa L. Steckler

Calving season is underway or about to begin for many cattlemen. Right now the overriding theme is rain in southern Illinois – which implies muddy conditions. While we can’t control the weather, we can prepare for many of the challenges it brings. Livestock that are stressed are more susceptible to stress-related challenges such as rain, mud, and cold temperatures.

Calving season is a critical time for cow-calf operations. The birth and the days that follow are the most hazardous period in a calf’s life. Most calves born require no assistance and when assistance is necessary, most ranchers defined it as an “easy pull” (National Animal Health Monitoring System, Beef 2007-08).

Calving difficulty is a part of calving season, and veterinarians generally recommend that heifers and cows be assisted if they are in active labor for more than two hours. Nevertheless, almost half of operations in the NAHMS study (Beef 2007-08) allowed cows to labor for three hours or more before intervening, and 40% allowed heifers to go for more than three hours before assisting the birth.

Any calf that gets sick in the first 45 days will weigh at least 35-40 pounds less, depending on genetics, at weaning than a calf that didn’t get sick. Cows that have calving difficulty will rebreed later and more of them will be open. Calves that survive calving difficulty are twice as likely to get sick during the first 45 days of life.

The major causes of young calf death or illness are: Dystocia (calving difficulty), starvation, exposure, metabolic disorders, scours and pneumonia, and trauma. Most of these causes can be prevented or reduced with good calving management.

Dystocia — Almost 50% of all young-calf deaths, birth to 24 hours old, are a result of calving difficulty. Producers often misdiagnose dystocia as “stillbirths.” Calves that are delivered easily and in the normal amount of time are rarely “stillborn.” Most calves that die during calving are a result of dystocia. Observing cattle often and assisting cows and heifers early can reduce problems with dystocia. Cows should be checked three to four times (or more) per day. Heifers should be observed at least every four hours, if possible. I know several cattlemen have video cameras in their calving barns to make the late-night checks more convenient and much warmer!

Starvation and insufficient colostrum — Calves that die of starvation are often considered to have died of other problems or metabolic disorders. Calves that don’t nurse quickly (within two to four hours) after birth often die of exposure or become weak and unable to nurse and starve. In addition, the ability of a calf to absorb antibodies from colostrum declines rapidly 12 hours after birth, and the calf cannot absorb antibodies after it is 24 hours old. Calves need to have their first drink of colostrum two to four hours after birth.

Exposure (hypothermia) — Exposure to cold and precipitation can kill newborn calves rapidly. A little rain or wet snow makes the problem even worse. As little as 0.10 inches of precipitation on the day the calf is born can mean trouble. Calves from 2-year-old heifers are at the greatest risk.

Minimize the effects of exposure by ensuring calves nurse soon after birth. During extremely cold or wet conditions calves may need shelter for the first 24-48 hours of life. Chilled calves should be brought in for warming and assisted in nursing if necessary. Extra attention to newborn calves during bad weather can pay big dividends.

Metabolic disorders — The most common metabolic disorders in newborn or young calves are white muscle disease and weak calf syndrome. White muscle disease is actually a selenium deficiency which results in failure of the heart and diaphragm muscles. Prevention includes proper selenium supplementation of the cow before calving and an injection of selenium solution at birth.

Weak calf syndrome is a protein and energy deficiency in newborns. Calves are weak and have trouble maintaining body temperature. Calves born to thin cows are at greatest risk. Weak calf syndrome can be prevented by proper cow nutrition during late pregnancy. Extra care and tube feeding of these calves may save some of them.

Scours — Calf scours can be decimating to a cow-calf operation, but proper management during the first days of a calf’s life can reduce problems with scours. Making sure calves nurse or are tube fed colostrum within four hours of birth increases the calf’s resistance to scours. Cows should calve in a clean environment. Pregnant cows should be kept out of the calving area until close to calving. Cow-calf pairs should be moved from the calving area to clean pastures by the time the calf is three to five days old, if both cow and calf are doing well. Calf shelters should be moved often, and calving pens cleaned and limed after each use.

Trauma — Trauma from being kicked, stepped on, run over or laid on kills a small percentage of calves every year. Trauma is usually a result of overcrowded conditions in bedding or feeding areas. Cow-calf pairs need to be in pastures with plenty of room and crowding of cows into calving areas should be avoided.

As with any situation, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Pregnant cow nutrition and calving season management can play huge roles in limiting calf losses. Happy calving!

Teresa L. Steckler is a University of Illinois Extension specialist, commercial agriculture.