Calving is now fast approaching on spring-calving beef farms throughout the country.
I often think the phrase ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is particularly applicable when it comes to calving time.
A bit of luck, is always a help of course, however, being set up properly and following the right procedures will certainly have a very significant part to play.
Body condition score (BCS)
The target BCS for a suckler cow is 2.5. Anything above BCS 3 puts the animal at a significantly greater risk of having a hard calving, while cows lower than BCS 2.5 can be weaker at calving, have poorer colostrum and subsequent breeding can be delayed.
At BSC 2.5, the animal’s loin bones and ribs will be felt with light pressure, while the tail head will only have a minor level of fat tissue present.
This late in the day, avoid making any major dietary adjustments.
Over-fat cows can be trimmed slightly, consider feeding straw if stocks allow, while under-condition cows will need an energy boost (see nutrition).
Pre-calving minerals are the first thing that springs to mind with nutrition. Ideally cows should be allocated six weeks prior to calving, roughly 100g/day.
For a fully accurate mineral/vitamin balance, you should consider getting a mineral analysis of your silage.
However, if buying a mineral mix or lick buckets, some of the main ingredients to look out for are magnesium (20-25g/day), phosphorous (4-7g/day), iodine (no more than 60mg/day) and selenium (5-6mg/day). In recent years, supplementing cows with soya bean meal for a month before calving has become more popular.
Soya bean meal is very high in crude protein (48%). Protein can have a number of functions towards the end of pregnancy.
Firstly, protein is essential in digestion, ultimately helping to extract energy from forages.
This is particularly important during late pregnancy when 75% of foetal growth takes place. For those aforementioned thinner cows, I would strongly recommend getting more protein into the diet to maximise energy uptake from feed. Secondly, supplemental protein can also improve the volume, quality and antibody content of the colostrum, helping the new born calf get off to a good start. I would be feeding no more than 0.5kg/head/day, which works out at €0.18/day or €5.40/month at current prices.
Where a calf is under pressure immediately after birth, hanging it up or swinging it is not advisable– it will only put greater pressure on the heart and can potentially divert fluid into the lungs. Where a calf is struggling to breathe, place the calf in the sternal recumbency position – sitting on the brisket with legs tucked under – to assist breathing.
Furthermore, tickle the nose with a straw, put cold water on the head and/or rub its chest vigorously to stimulate breathing.
Colostrum soon after calving is essential. This is the calf’s number one immune barrier from disease. Calves should receive colostrum no later than four hours after birth, ideally two. Research has shown that six hours after birth, calves absorbed 66% of the immunoglobulins in colostrum, but at 36 hours they were able to absorb only 7 % of immunoglobulins – that’s going to play a huge role in subsequent calf health. The target quantity for a calf is 8-10% of bodyweight ie 3.5-4l for a 40kg calf.
Avoid taking in colostrum from dairy farms as it severely compromises your farm’s biosecurity.
For calf environment, keeping newborn calves warm and dry is essential. Warm should not be a stuffy warm, but rather protection from rain/snow, wind or draughts.
Keeping the calf dry is just as important as heat. A calf lying on a wet bed rings alarm bells for infection.
For calves over three or four days old, consider using rubber mats (like in dairy cubicles) and scrape down and dust with sawdust and lime daily.
This is just as healthy, if not healthier than straw bedding, particularly if straw stocks are scarce. Always remember to spray the navels.
Checklist Calving gate.Calving jack plus two rope sets.Calving gloves.Iodine.Lubricant.Stomach tube and teat bottle.Electrolytes.Calving camera/monitor.
Martin O’Hare, Co Louth
Martin has 82 females to calve this spring – 63 suckler cows and 19 maiden heifers.
Calving is due to commence on 1 February and is set to run until around 10 April.
Pre-calving management is excellent on the farm.
The pre-calving diet consists of 72 DMD silage, fed at restricted levels.
Pre-calver minerals were also introduced before Christmas and are being dusted on the silage daily at feeding time.
Looking at the cows last week, BCS looked very close to optimum for the majority of the herd.
Martin felt that maybe one or two second-calvers were losing some condition, so the plan will be to pull these into a separate pen and allocate extra silage until they calve.
In terms of pre-calving health management, an intensive vaccination programme is in place.
Cows received vaccinations for Leptospirosis and BVD earlier in the year.
In the last two weeks, all cows have received a vaccination against scour.
At the same time, they were dosed for fluke and worms, tails were clipped and a lice pour-on was also administered.
For a busy calving period, facilities are very good on the farm.
Ideally, a farm should have one calving pen for every 10 suckler cows. Martin has eight for his 82 spring-calving cows which should be sufficient.
These calving pens are all under the one roof – four 15ft by 12ft pens, each side of a 10ft central passage.
One of the dividing gates is a calving gate, meaning it services two pens, leaving life much easier for calving and/or assisting calves to suck.
Given the large number of cows to calve, a second calving gate would be preferable, something Martin is certainly considering.
Obviously, post-calving, the objective is to turnout calves as early as possible. While the weather allows this some years, a farm should have the facility to keep calves indoors for longer periods of time if weather conditions are poor.
Martin explained: “If the weather stays as it is now I’ll be turning them out as quick as I can. But things might change and if they do, I have a creep area to let the calves lie on straw and leave the cows on slats.”