Calving time is the most important period of the year for suckler farmers. How cows are managed during the final few weeks of gestation, as well as the calving period itself, has a huge impact on the number of live calves born.

With spring calving set to get under way in the coming weeks, outlined are some tips for managing cows in the runup to this key time of the year.

Scour vaccines

Calf scour is the biggest cause of mortality in the first few weeks of life. On farms with a history of scour, consider vaccinating cows now.

The same should be considered on farms where cows and calves are likely to remain housed for a lengthy period from calving until turnout.

A vaccine is not a substitute for good hygiene in calving sheds. But when combined with good herd management, it greatly reduces the risk of a scour problem.

Also, there is no point in vaccinating cows if calves do not get adequate colostrum inside the first six hours of life. The calf’s ability to absorb antibodies quickly declines after this point, with almost no antibodies absorbed by the time the calf is 24 hours old.

Pre-calving minerals

Silage is low in trace elements, so cows should be supplemented with minerals prior to calving. This will cut down on problems such as calves that are slow to stand and suck.

It also reduces the number of animals that hold the placenta, thereby improving cow fertility post-calving.

Dusting minerals on silage daily is a simple task and having cows grouped according to predicted calving date makes this easier to manage.

Feed rates will vary depending on the mineral content, but cows will need around 150g/head every day.

A mineral bolus can be given to provide longer-term cover, but be careful of handling cows in late gestation. Lick buckets can also be offered, but make sure that all cows are using them.

Spraying 5ml of iodine on the cow’s flank every week can help to increase mineral intakes prior to calving.

Calving pens

Calving pens should be washed and disinfected before they are required, especially if they have been used to quarantine or house sick animals over winter.

Make sure calving gates, as well as the head lock, open and close securely. Think back to previous years when using the calving pen.

If visibility is poor, especially at night, install LED lights to make the working environment safer.

Keep pens well bedded with fresh straw between calvings. As a rule of thumb, if you kneel on bedding and your knees are wet, more straw is required.

As a newborn calf lies on the straw bed, its navel is immediately exposed to bacteria in the bedding.

Therefore, keeping pens clean and well bedded is essential to improving calf health.

Calving aids

Check the jack is working and restock calving aids such as gloves and lubricants.

Aids should be stored in the calving shed, where they can be kept clean and easily accessed in case a cow calves earlier than expected.

If calving ropes are hard and frayed, buy a new set. Using a set of red and blue ropes is highly recommended, as there is less chance of attaching the wrong rope to the wrong side of the jack.

Purchase new stomach tubes and sterilise existing ones by flushing with hot water before every use. Do not use an unclean tube on a newborn calf.

Calves have no immunity when born. Placing an unclean tube directly into the calf’s stomach transfers bacteria to the animal’s gut before it has received colostrum.

Also, never use the same stomach tube on sick calves and healthy animals. Use a different tube for sick calves and have it clearly marked.

Have heat bulbs and calf jackets handy for treating sick or weak calves, as they raise the animal’s core body temperature.

Calving cameras

Calving cameras are a great way to monitor cows without having to enter the shed, which can disturb and delay animals in the early stages of labour. They can be expensive to install, but if they save one calf, the investment will pay for itself.

Water provision

Calving pens should have access to water troughs. Cows can lose as much as 50-60l of fluid during the calving process, leaving animals dehydrated. This can inhibit the let-down of milk post-calving.

Don’t rely on buckets of water left in the calving pen. Buckets hold around 10l and more often than not, cows will tip the bucket and spill water.

Feeding cows in the evening

Calving cows during the day is preferable to calving at night, as these animals can get more attention. Feeding fresh silage to cows late in the evening, during the final weeks of gestation, can reduce the number of animals that calve overnight.

Push in uneaten silage first thing in the morning and aim to have the feed passage cleaned by lunchtime.

For this to work, cows must be in a fasted state before fresh silage is offered late in the evening.

Do not put extra silage in because cows are roaring during the day.

When to move cows off slats

This is a personal choice, depending on housing space and time. Ideally, cows should be moved off slats to straw-bedded pens around a week to 10 days before calving.

This gives cows time to settle into the calving shed before they go in to labour.

Alternatively, leave cows on slats until they have presented a water bag before moving to a calving pen.

When to intervene

Once the water bag is presented, check the front feet and head are in the correct position. If not, reposition at this point. If front feet are crossed, this is an early sign of a big calf, so make an early call on veterinary intervention.

A swollen tongue on a calf is a sign of a problem and early intervention is required. Pay attention to the colour of fluid in the water bag. In a normal calving, fluids are clear. But if fluids are cloudy or red, there is a problem and early intervention is required.

If the calf is coming backwards, it is crucial to work quickly, as the calf’s naval cord is compressed, increasing the risk of drowning.

For calves in the correct position, give the feet a pull forward by hand. If they move forward freely, leave the cow to calve on her own. If there is no progress after two hours, step in and assist the cow. Reduce this time to one hour for a heifer.

In the event that cows are pressing, but no water bag is presented, the animal is likely to have a twisted uterus, in which case veterinary intervention will be required.

COVID-19 plan B

Farmers have to cope with COVID-19 again this spring. So, to reduce the risk of contracting the virus, or having to self-isolate, minimise contact with people outside of the immediate family household.

Talk to other family members now, in case someone has to step up in the event that you contract the virus.

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