Cold weather can lead to calf weight gain, health problems if producers don’t prepare
It might seem like this cold, dry winter is never-ending, but the livestock business is still in good shape. According to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture (SDDA), “Cattle and calf conditions are rated 77 percent good to excellent, and sheep and lamb conditions 76 percent in those categories. Meanwhile, stockwater supplies are 89 eprcent adequate to surplus, and hay and forage supplies are 95 percent in those categories.”
This, of course, is the 30,000-ft. view. If we get a little bit closer to ground level, it’s quite evident the reality of managing cattle during this extremely long and cold winter is taking its toll on both calves and cattlemen.
Data released by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) suggests that spring-calving cows in colder winters have larger calf weights.
According to a six-year study conducted by UNL Beef Cattle Extension, “For every 1 degree F decrease in average winter temperature, there is an increase in calf birth weights by 1 lb. The study found the coldest winter (11 degrees colder than the warmest winter) resulted in calf birth weights 11 lbs. heavier when compared to the warmest winter.”
Dr. Mendell Miller, DVM, assistant state veterinarian for the South Dakota Animal Industry Board, has seen through first-hand experience the effects of cold weather on calving cows.
“Anecdotally, it seemed like the colder the winter, the worse the calving issues and the bigger the calves,” observed Miller. “There are probably a couple of reasons for that. The first is the cows don’t move very much when it’s cold. With the cold weather, they stand behind shelter belts and eat hay all day. They aren’t grazing on corn stalks and getting exercise. Their muscle tone isn’t as good, and they are at a heavier body condition score because they are sitting around eating.”
The consequences of a heavier, less-active group of spring-calving cows can lead to dystocia, larger calves, and cows that fatigue earlier when in labor. A longer, more difficult labor, combined with an increase in calf weight, can lead to weaker, less vigorous calves, Miller explained.
“When a calf is first born, it’s critical to get that calf warmed up and dried off,” he advised. “In cold weather, the calf is wet, and the cow can’t get it licked off fast enough; it quickly becomes an ice cube. When the temperature drops below zero, the calf is less likely to want to get up and suck. It’s important to respond in a timely manner and assist that calf in getting colostrum within that first six hours of birth.”
In extremely cold weather, ranchers often look to hot boxes, a warm seat in the pick-up, or even a night spent in the bathtub or in the entryway to warm up.
“Whatever you can do to warm that calf up is great,” Miller said. “However, the next challenge is getting that cow, particularly a first-calf heifer, to claim that calf once it is reintroduced. Producers often run into issues with the first-calf heifer claiming the calf if you take them away too soon; it messes up natural process of bonding between mom and baby.”
Commercial products such as Orphan-No-More, or things like blood meal (although less commonly used) can help the mom reclaim that calf after an absence.
“If the rancher can get the mother’s colostrum in the calf, that helps, too,” he said. “Sometimes the commercial milk replacer makes the calf smell differently, and she can be hesitant to take the calf for that reason.”
Miller said that there are challenges with calving, no matter what time of year a rancher chooses to calve; the important thing is to be prepared. A calving checklist is a must for all cow-calf operations.
“Being prepared is key,” he said. “The ranchers who calve in the dead of winter are prepared to handle adverse weather. This isn’t always the case for the rancher who calves in May. He might not be ready to handle an unexpected blizzard. It’s critical to have things on hand and be ready for any weather conditions because you can’t outguess Mother Nature.”
With the cold weather comes a unique set of challenges like frozen ears, noses, tails or feet.
“I’ve heard reports from a few ranchers now that are using duct tape to pin the ears back to the calf’s body for added body heat,” said Miller. “Once a calf gets up and going, it is pretty hardy. If you can keep them out of the wind, they can tolerate some pretty cold weather. Below-zero temperatures are one thing, but negative windchill is a much bigger issue. Shelter for those calves is very important.”
As these late-winter/early-spring calves get some age on them, scours isn’t the big issue in the cold, but pneumonia certainly is.
“Anytime a calf gets to be 4-8 weeks old, I recommend my clients look at the respiratory health of the animal,” explained Miller. “By the time a calf is a month old, the maternal antibodies are reduced, so that’s when a calf is most susceptible to problems. A vaccination is a good thing to give at a month or so to help protect against respiratory issues.”
Whether it’s assisting a cow through a tough labor, getting a calf warmed up and sucking, or administering a vaccination or treatment, Miller said it’s important to manage your cowherd closely and respond in a timely fashion.
“If you’re late on something, you will have problems,” he warned. “It’s critical to get things done at the right time. Don’t wait to assist these calves during this cold spell. It could spell trouble in the long-run.”
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