Neonatal Calf Management

Posted by
Written by Dr. Dallas Duncan-Meteer DVM, Mt. Sterling Veterinary Clinic

In the cow-calf sector, the key to increasing income is to increase reproductive efficiency. The best way to do this is to increase the number of calves weaned and sold, relative to the number of brood cows in the herd. Reproductive efficiency is directly related to proper management and husbandry. Once all the work is done to prepare a female for breeding, then breeding occurs and we hope for a live calf. Nothing is more frustrating than making it through this process and then losing a newborn calf.

Open cows and neonatal death are arguably the two largest factors that reduce value and profitability in the cowherd. The latter of the two is sometimes negated by producers. Thus, I continually discuss with my clients the factors that can contribute to neonatal calf mortality.

Over half of neonatal death losses occur in the first 24 hours. The first item to consider is dystocia (meaning "difficult birth"). Not only can dystocia result in a dead calf upon delivery, but it can contribute to other problems too. For example aspiration pneumonia, joint damage, nerve damage, hypoxia, and failure of passive transfer from inadequate colostrum intake can all be traced back to dystocia problems more times than not.

Considerations to reduce and help avoid dystocia in your herd:

  • Keep breeding females in proper BCS (body condition score). Not too fat, not too thin. A BCS of 6 for cows and 6.5 for heifers at calving is my suggestion.
  • Select the appropriate bull for your herd. Must be an easy calver that breeds vigor into his calves
  • Pelvic score replacement heifers
  • Keep accurate records of projected calving date and be prepared to check cows up to two weeks early with calving ease bulls.
  • During calving season check cattle frequently. Some producers have invested in cameras for night checks or simply to be able to check close up cows remotely
  • If a problem is identified take action. Don't be afraid to call a vet for assistance.

Producers need to put a strong focus on reducing the incidence of dystocia. Calves that experience a challenging birth are less likely to get up and nurse the cow. Hence, they do not thrive.

Along with maintaining cows in good BCS, proper nutrition and mineral supplementation is crucial. Brood cows require a sufficient mineral program and a diet with adequate energy and protein. Cows in good shape on a good balanced diet will make colostrum that is higher in IGGs which results in better calf immunity. Calves MUST receive colostrum in the first 6 hours of life. If they do not, then a producer MUST intervene with a colostrum replacement. Colostrum is built to be the first meal in life and it provides the antibodies calves need to have a functioning immune system.

It is also very important to prepare a clean and dry calving area out of the elements. Keeping calves in a dry and clean area is paramount to decrease exposure to pathogens. Also, avoid keeping cows locked up after calving for extended periods of time. The birthing process can lead to damp pathogen loaded bedding which is unhealthy for the neonatal calf. If at all possible deploy some version of the "sandhills system" where cows are calved in a fresh clean area every 2-3 weeks. If you do not have enough room, keeping areas cleaned, disinfected and properly bedded will be crucial. High pathogen loads lead to more issues with scours and respiratory disease. Scours is a huge killer of neonatal calves. They quickly become dehydrated and ill making recovery difficult.

Front end loading your calving can greatly reduce disease in neonatal calves. This means have a tight calving window with the majority of the calves being born early on. You ever notice how the first calves aren't usually the ones that get sick? It's the stragglers that seem to fight everything. This is because the older calves are spreading all of their disease and bugs around and the new calves with weak immune systems are being exposed to these bugs.

Overall, preparation is crucial to a successful calving season. Pick the right breeding stock, keep accurate records, and be mindful of your calving environment. Good husbandry practices go a long way in a cow calf operation. Not only will some of these practices make your life a lot easier but they will definitely make you more money.