Ranchers, newborn calves face challenges from lingering winter storms
April 12, 2018
Any hope of emerging from the 2018 winter that won't end, and replenishing depleted levels of Vitamin D, in both ourselves and our livestock has been nothing short of elusive these past few months. But rest assured, our apparently bi-polar mother-nature will in fact come through …. eventually, but in the meantime, the struggle continues.
Bill Marlatt, DVM, with Belle Fourche Veterinary Clinic, said producers are struggling to find dry places to calve and move pairs onto, and those wet conditions can lead to calf problems.
"Even calves born with a perfect plane of nutrition, can be overwhelmed if spending too much time in the slop," Marlatt said. "Producers have plowed side hills and well sodded pastures to bare off and provide a dry place to lay."
Short of providing more barn space, which is not only costly but, at this point, not likely an option for this season, producers are facing more losses and health issues.
"Finding cover and protection in some cases has been difficult and resulting calf death losses and treatment costs have been high this spring," Marlatt said.
"Early on, conditions were optimal for pine needle abortions. Producers that had utilized the same spring pastures without incident for the last several years, experienced pine needle abortion this spring. There was enough stress due to prolonged cold combined with isocupressic acid metabolites from eating pine needles to trigger premature parturition – calving. If these calves are too premature, survivability is poor," Marlatt said.
Recommended Stories For You
Cows that abort from pine needles also are at risk of retaining their placenta, according to Marlatt. Cows with retained fetal membranes are at increased risk of metritis, displaced abomasum, and mastitis.
Last year's drought and poor hay year has also added fuel to the fire.
"In some cases, cows were inadvertently underfed protein and/or energy. This can lead to the birth of smaller, weaker calves with lower fat stores. These calves tend to be less capable to tolerate environmental stress, have poor suckle reflex, and are more prone to scours, pneumonia, navel ill, and hypothermia," Marlatt said.
But this problem can be treated.
"Various vitamin and energy boosters are available on the market. These may help in some cases, but protein/energy deficient calves have a longer "row to hoe" and often end up being a statistic especially if born in poor conditions," Marlatt said.
It's never too early to start preparing and planning for next year.
"One recommendation is to have a feed analysis performed on forages at least 2 – 3 months prior to calving (purchased and home-grown) to get an idea if there are going to be some deficiencies," Marlatt said.
He also recommends feed supplementation (cake, corn, lick barrels/tubs) to help prevent protein/energy malnutrition in the first place.
Another possible solution for next year, albeit not real popular, would be calving later in the spring, Marlatt said.
According to a University of Nebraska Lincoln study, there are profitable advantages to late spring calving.
Cows that calve in March or earlier, must be fed a lactation diet of high-quality hay, and supplemented, for at least 90 days before summer grass arrives. Sequencing calving closer to the time when the grazed resource will meet the nutrient demands of the lactating female reduces feed costs and increases profit potential, according to the study.
But producers are well aware that no two calving seasons are the same. Sometimes the best laid plans still go awry, and with the crazy spring weather, organizing and preparing may be the only control a producer has.
The number one rule that every producer knows is calves need colostrum in their first few hours of life to survive. That's when they have the ability to absorb the colostrum's immunity-boosting antibodies directly into the bloodstream. After that, there are a number of other tricks to the trade that successful producers have come up with.
1. Select for calving ease. For a commercial cow-calf producer, dystocia (or lack of 'calving ease') is what generates costs in a cow herd through direct losses of calves and their dams, increased labor costs, and lower reproductive rates among cows that have experienced dystocia.
2. Monitor nutrition levels and be careful to not over-feed prior to calving, according to University of Minnesota Extension. https://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/beef/components/docs/minimizing_calving_difficulty_in_beef_cattle.pdf
3. Monitor body condition scores. For a cow to maintain a 365 day calving interval, she must rebreed by 82 days after calving (283 day gestation + 82 day postpartum interval = 365 days). On the average, cows that calve in a BCS 3 or 4 have difficulty exhibiting their first heat by 80 days after calving. Whereas cows that calve in BCS 5 or 6 tend to exhibit heat by 55 days after calving and; therefore, have a better opportunity to maintain a 365 day calving interval. Although cows that calve in a BCS of 7 have a short postpartum interval, it is not economical to feed cows to a condition score of 7, according to Rick Rasby, at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. https://beef.unl.edu/learning/condition1a.shtml
4. Provide shelter. Kansas cattle producers indicate, that on average, calving success increases by 2 percent if cows are protected by a windbreak, and a Canadian study found that cattle on winter range, in unprotected sites, required a 50 percent increase in feed. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1124&context=natrespapers
5. Keep pens and barn areas clean and have a plan for sick calves. Newborn calves have an immature immune system, providing an easy path for pathogens. Keeping facilities clean is essential to minimizing health risks in newborn calves.