Achieving a successful calving season


Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry,

Preventative activities

  • In consultation with a veterinarian, develop an annual vaccination program. Keep accurate records of dates and products administered to the herd.
  • Provide a balanced ration to cows both pre- and post-calving. Consult with a nutritionist, feed company representative or veterinarian for assistance. Feed testing is a critical part of the process.
  • Clean out wintering pens prior to fall feeding season. Removal of old bedding, manure and wasted feed allows the area to dry out. Some pathogens cannot tolerate sunlight or a lack of moisture and will die off.
  • Inspect the cleaned pens and complete repairs or maintenance as required. Fill in low area where water may collect the following spring. Re-level and add fill in areas around the water facilities and feed bunks.
  • Inspect maternity pens and ensure head gates, and chutes are in good working order.
  • Collect and inspect all tools required for assisting calving. Replace anything that is showing signs of wear.
  • Check inventories of products needed for the calving season. Purchase what is required.

Optimizing calf environment

  • Minimize wet areas in the calving pen. Landscape the area to prevent brackish water accumulation. Prevent spring runoff water from entering the pen.
  • Keeping the calf warm and dry is important. Maintain a clean, fresh bedding pack. Provide shelter from wind, rain and snow.
  • Disinfecting the navel of the newborn calf may help prevent infection.
  • Move cows that are close to calving onto a clean area away from the overwintering pen if possible (Sandhills calf system). Putting animals onto fresh clean ground reduces the risk of spreading disease. After two weeks, move calving cows onto another clean pasture. Intent is to keep newly born calves separate from 2 to 3 week old calves to prevent spread of disease.

Getting the calf off to a good start – Colostrum

  • Calves should receive colostrum from the cow as soon as possible after birth. This is important to increase the calf’s resistance to disease. Ideally the calf should consume 5% of its birth weight or approximately 2 litres of colostrum in its first 4 hours of life. For smaller calves, this may require splitting the 2 litres into two feedings within the first 4 hours of life.
  • If there is a history of calf disease and death loss in the herd, an additional litre of colostrum should be consumed / fed prior to 8 hours of life.
  • Calves which do not nurse within 4 hours should be given colostrum by stomach tube.
  • Do not use dairy colostrum. The immunoglobulins are more dilute in dairy colostrum than in beef colostrum. Even though the calf may get the correct volume; the total amount of IGG and IGM received are not sufficient to meet the calf’s needs.

Vital signs at birth

  • After a difficult birth or assisted birth, DO NOT hang the calf over a fence or bale. This only increases the pressure on the heart and lungs making it more difficult for the animal to breathe. If turned upside down, liquid stomach contents are expelled from the animal. The fluids could end up in the lungs creating more breathing problems. Place the calf in the sternal recumbency position to assist breathing. Tickle nose with a straw, put cold water on the calf head, or rub chest vigorously to stimulate breathing.
  • Heart rate of a newborn – more than 100 beats per minute
  • Respiratory rate of a newborn – more than 40 breaths per minute. Rhythmic breathing should be observed.
  • A healthy calf should be up and suckling the cow within an hour of birth.

Other considerations

  • Vitamin E is passed to the calf through the colostrum. Milk contains very little vitamin E. Vitamin E is essential for optimum performance of reproductive, muscular, circulatory, nervous, and immune systems. Vitamin E and selenium are synergistic. White muscle disease, dead calves at birth or animals dying shortly after birth are problems associated with a deficiency.
  • A lack of vitamins can increase the incidence of retained placenta and reduce reproductive performance in the breeding season.
  • If a problem occurs, consult with the corresponding professional to evaluate the situation and draw up protocols to prevent a repeat of the problem.

Ag-Info Centre, Alberta Agriculture & Forestry 310-3276


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