The first step in preparing for the next calving season is to review how the calving season went last year and identify areas that went well and those that could be improved on.

It is easier to consider this now when things are calm rather than when the calving season has started and the pressure is on.

Preparation is key to having a successful calving season. Get some basic supplies in stock for the calving period including disposable plastic gloves (long and short), gel, paper towel, calving ropes (minimum of two pairs), calving jack, calcium bottles/boluses, iodine for navels, colostrum (fresh or frozen supply), stomach tube (without cracks), calf tags and notebook/phone app to record information.

Next is to assess the dry cow diet.

Diet is significant before calving due to the demands of the growing foetus, mammary regeneration and the production of good quality colostrum.

The cow’s body condition score should be between 3.0-3.25 at calving and this impacts on stamina during parturition, calf vigour, and subsequent rebreeding.

Over fat cows can struggle with calving due to accumulation of fat in the pelvis, making it difficult for the calf to fit through. Fat cows are also more susceptible to metabolic diseases like milk fever, ketosis and displaced abomasum after calving.

A high-quality pre-calver mineral, fed for at least six weeks before calving is essential.

Trace element deficiencies are associated with higher incidences of stillbirths, retained placenta and weak calves, and magnesium supplementation before calving is important to prevent milk fever at calving.

If you haven’t already done so, get a silage analysis done and with the help of a nutritionist, plan the diet accordingly.

Ensure all your cows’ vaccinations are up to date. If some diseases, such as calf scour, have historically been a problem on your farm, review these with your veterinary practitioner as you may need to vaccinate cows at least three weeks pre-calving.

Vaccination is a useful tool to manage calf scours but is not a silver bullet. If other management procedures are not optimised, including hygiene, housing and colostrum management then you will have poor success from a vaccination programme.

Calving sheds and equipment

Check these before the calving season begins. All gates should open and close easily, while not forgetting the importance of having access to an escape route! Make sure that the calving jack, head gates and lighting are in working order.

Calving facilities should be clean, well-bedded, with good lighting and an adequate supply of clean water. The calving unit should be equipped with a self-locking restraining gate (preferably suitable for C-section).

A separate pen is necessary for sick cows and avoid putting them in the calving shed. Individual calving boxes are preferable.

Depending on the pre-calving movement policy, the calving pattern and the typical time a cow spends in the calving pen, at least one individual calving pen (4m x 4m) is required per 25 cows. Well-managed, group-calving units (loose pens, pads, paddocks) can also provide suitable calving accommodation.

Hygiene around calving

Cleanliness prior to and during calving is important to reduce spread of disease. Having fresh bedding easily accessible makes it easier to keep pens clean and dry. Ensure both your calving pens and calf sheds are well ventilated but have no draughts.

Poor air flow through a shed can lead to a build-up of moisture and pathogens which can in turn make both cows and calves ill. If you need to carry out works to improve air flow, this should be done well in advance of calving.

Newborn calves need to be kept warm, with the optimal air temperature for calves under three weeks being 15°C to 20°C.

This can be difficult to achieve in Ireland from January to April, especially in larger calf sheds, but there are ways to overcome this. Ensure the bedding is deep enough to allow calves to nest, add an extra heat source (red light), use calf jackets, or create cosy areas with straw bales.

If calves lie in damp conditions, they will not thrive and are more susceptible to disease.

The importance of a calf having a dry, warm bed is often underestimated.

Effective biosecurity is key to avoiding the introduction or spread of many diseases, including Johne’s disease, during the calving season. Johne’s disease is a bacterial disease of cattle and other ruminants for which there is no cure. These bacteria are excreted in the dung or milk of infected adult cattle, especially during stressful periods like calving time.

Once animals become infected, the disease progresses slowly and silently

Cattle usually become infected as calves early in life by exposure to contaminated colostrum, milk and calving pens. Some common management practices at calving can dramatically increase the rate of spread of Johne’s disease on an infected farm-

  • Inadequately cleaning pens between calvings.
  • Feeding pooled colostrum or milk to calves.
  • Having group calving accommodation.
  • Having adult cows share accommodation with several calves/young animals.
  • Once animals become infected, the disease progresses slowly and silently with signs of Johne’s disease often not visible until the animal has had three or more calves. Pasteurisation of colostrum and milk can also have a role in reducing the spread of Johne’s disease, but only as part of the whole-farm management approach. Calf hygiene remains a crucial component of managing dairy calves, providing benefits beyond just control of Johne’s disease.

    A refresher on colostrum

    A calf is born without antibodies and depends on their absorption from colostrum (first milk after calving) to gain immunity until they develop their own immunity at three to four weeks of age.

    The ability of the calf to absorb antibodies decreases every hour from birth and stops when the calf is 24 hours old.

    The simple rule is to use colostrum, from the first milking, for the first feed, within two hours of birth and give at least 3l (1-2-3 of colostrum management).

    Colostrum quality decreases as the time from calving to milking for the first time increases

    Move calves as soon as possible after birth to a clean, dry, safe environment to minimise contact with other adult cows and potential transfer of disease.

    Colostrum quality decreases as the time from calving to milking for the first time increases; collect as soon and as hygienically as possible. Feed transition milk (milkings two to six after calving) to calves for at least two days (four feeds) after the first colostrum feeding.

    At peak calving, when there is surplus colostrum, store a supply to have available when required. Frozen colostrum can be stored at -18°C to -25°C for up to a year without changing its quality. This colostrum should be hygienically collected, frozen and it’s quality tested by using a Brix refractometer prior to freezing.


    Hygienic collection practices and clean equipment while collecting, feeding, and storing colostrum is paramount.

    If colostrum is being stored temporarily, put it into a fridge within three hours of collection to minimise bacterial growth.

    It will last in the fridge for up to 48 hours, after this, bacteria can multiply very quickly, binding to the antibodies and reducing the calf’s ability to absorb them.

    Slow thawing of frozen colostrum in a water bath at temperatures below 50°C is recommended and heat to body temperature before feeding. If colostrum is heated above this point (e.g thawing in boiling water) the antibodies are destroyed.

    Using a microwave for thawing or heating colostrum can be risky, as it can lead to overheating, some of colostrum (hotspots) and destruction of antibodies.