Proper nutrition before and after calving
Many factors can play a role in whether or not a producer has a successful calving season, but management is the key. According to Steve Paisley, extension beef cattle specialist with the University of Wyoming, making sure a newborn calf gets up and nurses within six hours of birth is critical to its future health.
“It is very important to make sure the calf gets adequate colostrum,” he explains. “Old data indicates the calf needs colostrum within 12 hours of age, but new data says it may be closer to six hours. As the calf get older, in hours and minutes, the small intestine starts to mature and develop, limiting its ability to absorb those [immunoglobulin] antibodies.”
Rick Rasby, beef specialist with the University of Nebraska, adds, “Colostrum is the defense mechanism for the calf early on. It is full of immunoglobulins. If the calf doesn’t get up and nurse quickly after birth, I tell producers to be prepared to give the calf colostrum. It is that important.”
Nutrition prior to calving can play a role in how soon the cow and calf both get up after birth. “There is data from clear back in the ’70s that indicates a cow with proper nutrition will calve easier and get up quicker,” Paisley explains. “It also indicates the calf will be born with more vigor, and get to its feet sooner and nurse, which is 90 percent of the battle.”
Cows should be in a body condition score (BCS) of five prior to calving. Rasby says he likes to see first-calf heifers in a BCS of six. “They are calving and lactating for the first time,” he says. “They are also trying to repair their reproductive tract so they can breed back for the second time, and in addition to all of that, they are still trying to grow. Nutrition is very important for them.
“Having a cow in good body condition depends on how well you met the requirements of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals,” Rasby continues. “It is a stressful time for the cow. She needs to be able to get up after calving, lick that calf off, and provide colostrum to support that calf. The amount of immunoglobulins available at calving is a function of body condition and nutrition at calving.”
The cow’s diet prior to calving is critical. She needs a balanced ration to meet not only her protein and energy needs, but also her vitamin and mineral requirements. “It’s a total package,” Rasby says. “Nutrition is particularly important the last trimester because that is when most of the fetal growth is occurring. Their nutritional needs at that time are extremely high.”
Paisley says producers need to have a good nutritional program in place prior to calving. “They don’t need to gain weight or be excessively fat, but it is critical that they are healthy,” he explains. During the last 60-90 days prior to calving, protein and energy requirements for the cow increase 30 percent, he notes. “We have seen cows that will wean a calf off and look good through November and early December because there is plenty of forage available. However, as we move closer to calving, the ability to find forage can decrease in winter pasture, in addition to enduring colder weather, and occasional storms.”
Paisley says he encourages producers to provide an adequate supplement of protein to cows prior to calving. “It helps the cow make better utilization out of the existing forage,” he says. “Because she can process and digest the forage better, she will consume more forage. She will pick up that energy deficiency on her own. It is also important to make sure there is adequate mineral available to the animal, especially if a low-quality forage is being fed.”
Paisley points out that producers should feed a mineral that is high in phosphorus, which is important for calf health. “Many times, a protein supplement will carry a lot of phosphorus with it,” he says. “Meeting the cow’s mineral requirements and making sure mineral is available is not only important to the calf’s health, but will also improve the cow’s ability to repair her reproductive tract so she will cycle,” pointing out “her breed back and fertility is enhanced by having adequate mineral available.”
It is also important to continue a good nutritional management program after the calf is born. A cow will reach her peak energy requirements approximately 60 days after calving, when she reaches peak milk production. “Her energy requirements increased at calving, and then increased another 30 percent at her peak lactation,” Paisley says. For at least three to four weeks after birth, the calf gets 100 percent of its nutrition from the cow.
Producers also need to pay particular attention to the weather to determine if the cows or pairs may need a little more supplement. “On colder days they will need more energy and nutrient intake to compensate for that colder temperature,” Paisley says. “It is also a good idea to feed them some extra hay in an area protected from the wind so they have some bedding and a place to lay down. Anything that will keep live calves from getting sick will show some benefits in weaning weight and decreased health costs. Producers do benefit from some of the preventive measures they take,” he adds.
Rasby says if calves are cold, producers should have indoor facilities set up well ahead of time to bring the cow and calf in. “I recommend they make sure their calf warming box is functioning, and has been tested ahead of time,” he explains. “I also encourage producers to clean out and rebed stalls with clean material after each pair has passed through to cut down on disease problems.”