Calving season is an exciting time of year, but it can also be a stressful time. The success of a calving season greatly influences the economics of the entire year. Difficult or abnormal calvings, also called dystocias, have a major economic impact on the cow-calf operation, as they are estimated to be the cause of 60 per cent of neonatal mortalities and decrease first service conception rates by 15 per cent.
Proper planning starts months before the calving season begins and can minimize difficulties by managing some of the variables. Genetic selection tools, like calving ease Expected Prodigy Differences (EPDs), allow producers to choose sires with lower birth weight genetics, decreasing the likelihood of having to assist with the birth, or parturition. Proper nutrition also cannot be over emphasized. Cows need to be in a proper body condition, as fewer dystocias occur in cows having a body condition score of 3 to 3.5 out of 5. The ability for cows to have proper uterine contractions and healthy neonatal calves also requires feeds to contain appropriate levels of protein and many macro and micro minerals.
As calving season approaches, it is important to put together a calving kit and prepare the calving area at least a month in advance. With multiples often arriving early and gestation length varying, cows often begin the calving season on their own terms.
Regardless of your calving system, some form of restraint is needed to allow for the examination of a dystocia. A functioning head gate is an essential tool and should be used with a side panel that can be moved if the cow lays down. It contains a segment that opens on the cow’s left side, allowing for a caesarean section to be performed. It is important to have enough space behind the restraint system to allow room for a calf puller or fetotomy wires (wires used to disassemble a deceased calf). It is also necessary to have access to means of transportation. Unless cows are down or have prolapsed their uteri, transporting them to a veterinary clinic allows for procedures to be performed in a controlled, clean, and warm setting with proper lighting, increasing the likelihood of a favourable outcome. Producers should speak with their veterinarian prior to the calving season to discuss where their veterinarian prefers to assist with dystocias, as smoothing out these details prevents additional surprises in the middle of an emergency.
Putting together a calving kit prior to the calving season also ensures that producers have proper supplies available. It is important that items in the kit are kept clean through proper washing and disinfection, minimizing the spread of disease between animals. A calving kit should contain most of the following items:
- easy to clean pail (smooth plastic or stainless steel)
- clean water
- long, plastic palpation sleeves — regular latex or thin nitrile gloves can be worn over the palpation sleeves for easier manipulation of the calf
- waterproof clothing – a short-sleeved waterproof top with elastic in the sleeve hem helps hold up palpation sleeves; waterproof pants or overalls keep pants dry
- a container to hold smaller tools and supplies – (plastic toolbox or tote)
- medical supplies – needles, syringes, local anesthetic, a bottle of antiseptic soap (chlorhexidine or iodine scrub), lubricant, and any pharmaceuticals recommended by the herd veterinarian (which may include non-steroidal and steroidal anti- inflammatories, antibiotics, oxytocin, epinephrine and local anesthetics)
- calving tools – include one 60 inch chain or two 30 inch chains, chain handles, and often a calf puller (or jack)
- flashlights or headlamps
- halters and extra ropes – Halters can be used to tie the cow’s head to the side of the head gate, preventing the cow from laying down on her incision during a caesarean section. The ropes assist positioning the cow’s legs into a “frog-legged” position, allowing for maximum space in the cow’s pelvis if she is laying down.
- calf supplies – towels, colostrum, tube feeder, ear tags and tagger, and any pharmaceuticals given to calves at birth
Although producers cannot prepare their way out of every difficult situation, having facilities and supplies ready for the calving season can minimize the challenges. For excellent resources on beef cattle reproduction and parturition, producers should visit the following Beef Cattle Research Council website www.beefresearch.ca/categories/reproduction-calving/