For most regions, the seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter dictate the production practices for cow/calf operations. Like clockwork, a change in the weather brings a new task at hand. Depending on the region in which cattlemen live, things to do could vary from season to season, but Mother Nature still dictates when the important tasks of breeding, harvesting feedstuffs and calving occur.
All tedious practices, that require due diligence and preparation to make sure the outfit operates at peek efficiency. Many arguments have been started as peers try to figure out which is more important to the overall success of the firm, but most have come to the conclusion these are complimentary efforts, without one, there is no need to go to all the trouble to finish the other.
Calving season is always a particularly stressful time for most cattlemen. Striving to get as many live calves and keep them alive, is one goal that should be in writing for every cow/calf operation. Allow adequate time to make the right preparations.
“You have to have an idea when the first calves are going to get here. Breeding and preg check records are extremely important. Some of the necessary equipment, like calf chains or a calf jack, can't be purchased at the local coop,” says Dr. Jane Parish, Extension Beef cattle Specialist, Mississippi State University.
“Breeding to low birth weight bulls and making sure the replacements are grown out correctly, are two pretty important tools to a successful calving season. When you're getting ready for calving season visit with your vet, he'll help you get prepared,” says Dr. Joe Paschal, Texas Agri Life Extension, Corpus Christi, Texas.
For most, needed supplies for calving season usually are colostrum, calving chains or calving ropes, handles, a calf jack, some type of OB lubrication or vegetable oil and a box of sleeves.
“I recommend calving chains because they are a lot easier to clean than calving ropes. We can't afford to contaminate that reproductive tract,” Paschal says. “Use OB lube or vegetable oil if you need lubrication, not dish soap because dish soap actually works against you.”
“Once calves are born, some producers like to tag them and put iodine or blue spray on the navel. Some, for various reasons, like to tattoo to make sure they establish a permanent ID,” Parish says. “If this is part of your management system, make sure you are well stocked with all of these items.”
Preparedness does not end with a list of supplies or equipment thirty days before calving season. Cattlemen need to look at their facilities and the cow herd to determine the next move.
“We have to calve heifers at a body condition score (BCS) 6. I want to look at these heifers early to see where they're at because I don't want to be feeding them much after eight months,” Paschal says. “A good place to start for most is to have a pen or facility that is lighted and has a water source. Make sure you have the cattle where you can easily get them to this pen, no matter what the weather conditions are.”
“Have cows where you can get them up to a working facility. Make sure any repairs are done ahead of calving season,” Parish says. “We always want to calve heifers at a BCS 6 and mature cows a BCS 5. Make sure you hit those targets early, because it is awfully hard to put on weight after she calves.”
Nutrition prior to calving season may involve the most in depth planning because producers will often walk the line whether the heifers are too fat or not fat enough. Several methods may be employed to reach the target weight and most operations will make best use of available resources.
“Separate females into different groups based on calving date. You have a little longer to get the late calving cows in the right condition and you can waste a lot of quality feed, feeding cattle at different stages of pregnancy at the same rate. You can get cattle in shape with good forage and high quality hay,” Parish says. “I always recommend a year round free choice mineral program based on forage conditions. When those girls start lactating in lush grass conditions, the chances for grass tetany increase, make sure they're getting a high Mag mineral at least 30 days prior to calving. When you start calving, it's time to start thinking about breeding season and a good mineral program from calving to rebreeding is pretty important.”
“If you look at those heifers before breeding season and they're at a BCS 4, you need to put weight on them before calving season. The key is starting early. Monitor them throughout and once you get them there you have to maintain them. Good quality hay will maintain them, but you have to test your feed stuffs, so you know if a supplement is needed” Paschal says. “You can't afford to calve them at a BCS 4 for many reasons. If a heifer is thin and she has a problem, most likely she'll give up because she doesn't have the energy to deliver the calf and you may lose it. It's a fine line, but I would almost rather have those heifers just a little too fat when they calve.”
As calving season approaches, observation is key. Self training and reviewing breeding and preg check records once more could allow for producers to go to the observation area (calving pasture) with a game plan.
“Most people have a second job and most mature cows are left to calve on their own. Spend quite a bit of time with those heifers before and during calving season. I recommend people check them at least twice, morning and night. If you can check them once during the night, it'll make you money,” Paschal says. “Know the physical signs when one is ready. You don't have to check all 30 heifers every time. Know which ones are close and just check those heifers that are close, not the whole bunch.”
“Know your animals. If one is acting different or kind of off by herself she's probably getting close. Knowing your cows will go a long way to knowing when one will calve,” Parish says. “I tell people to check cows when they get up in the morning and sometime when they get home. This is a good way to find problems if you're going to have them. A lot of times, a neighbor is willing to check them for you during the day and let you know if there is a problem.”
Mother Nature cannot often be manipulated. However, a simple change in feeding time may improve the ability for producers to observe females during actual calving.
“There have been some studies that feeding a high energy feed later in the afternoon or evening will push more calves to being born later in the morning closer to daylight hours when you get there to check them,” Paschal says. “The important thing to remember is you're still going to have calves while you're at work or in the middle of the night.”
The tedious, but needed process of checking heifers sometimes will bring more work. Deciding when it's time to assist is critical to calf survival rate.
“Start looking at the signs. Is the water bag out or has it already broken? It is important to observe these females and if you know when she started calving then you know when it's time to assist,” Parish says. “I will usually jump in and assist heifers a lot faster than I would mature cows. If you don't know how long she has been pushing, go ahead and assist that birth.”
“You have to know how long she has been trying to calve. From the time the water breaks you have three to four hours. If she has already passed water and you don't know the exact time she started calving, it's time to help immediately,” Paschal says. “If there is a malpresentation, like a head back or a foot back, call the vet immediately. Most operators don't see those things very often and a vet can usually get that calf out a lot quicker.”
As with most animal husbandry practices, there is a right way and a wrong way to get the job done, but there are no clear cut rules to assisting a cow, as long as a live calf is delivered.
“There are all sorts of situations that arise. Sometimes we're lucky to have a flashlight, a set of chains and a rope to catch the cow when it comes time to pull a calf. When I am assisting a cow, I like for her to be standing up as much as possible,” Paschal says. “Put her in a chute or an alley where you can work. Some calving chains and handles usually do the trick. I also recommend a stout young person to help whenever possible. Be careful using a calf jack because you can hurt a calf pretty easily. Once you have decided to render assistance, if you don't make any progress in 30 minutes call the vet.”
Most, especially if it's late at night, think the job is finished once the cow has had her calf. The number of live calves will also increase if producers observe newborns, whether it was an unassisted or assisted birth.
“After the cow calves, your job is only half done. Make sure you pair him up with momma and he nurses. Make sure they are in a safe place. You see a lot of calf loss after a cow calves because producers don't finish the job,” Paschal says. “When you see feet or a head, that calf should be born in about 40 minutes stay around watch until it comes out. The whole point is to get a live calf. Watch her have the calf, the calf stand up, nurse and then you're done calving.”
“Once she calves, she needs to clean it up and make sure those calves get up and start nursing. Sometimes you have to put them in a smaller area so she'll mother up and that calf will have the opportunity to nurse,” Parish says. “Make sure there aren't any defects in that calf. If the calf doesn't nurse, sometimes you have to milk her out in the first six hours because fresh colostrum is better than another source, but always have frozen colostrum on hand just in case. If the calf isn't nursing all four quarters, then a whole new set of problems can come about.”
Calving season is a definite indicator of future profit. The more live calves a producer can bring into the world and keep healthy the better his pay check is going to be at weaning. Preventative measures can be taken during calving season to get the youngsters off to a good start. Sorting and providing a good environment may lead to disease free calves.
“Move pairs every week to fresh pasture off the calving ground that might contain contaminants,” Parish says. “If you start having disease problems, consult your veterinarian.”
“Try to have a clean pasture where nothing has been in there for at least 30 days and depending on how long the calving season is you may want to have more than one calving area,” Paschal says. “A good environment cuts down on calf diseases. Certain pastures are known to cause scours etc. If you have them, just stay away from them and keep newborns on clean ground if possible.”
The calendar is a good place to start the planning process for most. Usually as soon as one critical part of the production plan is finished, another awaits that must be attacked with the same vigor the hard work was put in for a 100 percent calf crop.
Producers will encounter different problems from time to time. After all, they are four-legged critters that have a mind of their own and always know when it's time for the big game or the special anniversary dinner. Being prepared will go a long way to reaching that goal of perfection.
“A little preparation goes a long way. Make sure you have towels and a dry place to put that calf if it is raining or cold,” Paschal says. “Visit with other ranchers. Not everyone has a perfect situation, you just have to get the job done. There are a lot of good ideas out there and after all, the principle objective is a live calf.”