Mid to late February will see spring calving get underway on many suckler farms across Northern Ireland, with peak activity during March and April.
A successful calving period will be influenced by the level of herd management in place, as well as having a bit of luck on your side.
Ahead of the upcoming calving season, outlined are 10 tips to consider that may help increase the number of live calves born this spring.
1. Getting the pre-calving diet right
Pre-calving minerals sho-uld be offered to cows around six to eight weeks before animals are expected to calve down. However, it is still worth feeding minerals to cows calving in three to four weeks’ time.
Cows low in trace minerals are slower to ‘clean’ after calving and are prone to holding the placenta. Their calves are slower to stand and feed.
February and March calving cows should be in fit condition by this stage and eating ad-lib silage. Restricting silage so close to calving can cause problems, as the cow’s energy intake is reduced.
Cows not getting adequate energy from their diet are lethargic during labour, with weaker contractions, resulting in higher levels of intervention needed.
Risk of milk fever is also higher, particularly in older cows, cows with twins or animals with a strong dairy influence.
2. Pen hygiene
As calves are born with no immunity, clean calving pens are vital. If calving pens are currently used as a sick bay, remove animals, then powerwash the pen.
Once dry, disinfect and spread lime. Sick animals spread disease in urine and dung. You do not want newborn calves lying on a dirty floor with their naval in contact with such pathogens.
Try to keep the areas around the calving gate clean, as this is where calves first hit the ground and surgical procedures like caesarean sections are carried out.
3. Feeding cows at night
Routinely feeding cows late in the evening can reduce the number of animals calving through the night. The later cows are fed, the more likely it is to work.
All silage should be cleared up by afternoon so that cows are in a fasted state before fresh silage is offered that evening.
Hungry cows will eat to appetite, then lie and ruminate. This can help to delay the onset of labour until the following morning, so cows calve in daylight hours.
4. Moving cows to calving pens
With straw costing north of £200/t, most farmers will favour leaving cows in group pens with slatted flooring until animals are in labour, before moving to calving pens.
This practice is fine when someone is always in the yard to watch cows, as animals can be moved to a calving pen on time.
However, if working off farm, there is an increased risk of cows calving on slats and newborn calves being injured by others in the pen. Calves can also pick up infections from lying on soiled slats.
Therefore, moving cows to a straw-bedded shed a few days before you anticipate animals calving down is recommended.
5. Stocking up on calving aids
Stock up on calving aids and kit now. Locate the calving jack and ropes, and store them in the calving shed where they can be easily accessed.
Every farm can have one or two cows calving a week to a fortnight ahead of time. Having all calving aids prepared now will take the stress out of delivering a premature calf.
If calving ropes are hard, frayed or soiled, then buy a new set and opt for red and blue ones, rather than white ropes.
Replace stomach tubes with knicks or scuffs, as they will damage the calf’s throat. Ideally, have one tube for newborn calves and a second tube for calves with scour or other diseases.
6. When to intervene at calving
Most cows will calve on their own if given time. But intervention will be required when problems arise, or on certain occasions for peace of mind.
For example, intervening first thing in the morning is common, as you may not be aware of how long the cow has been in labour.
Assuming the calf is presented properly, with mature cows calving to a tried and tested bull, allow two hours from the waterbag being presented before intervening. For heifers, step in after one hour if there is no progress.
7. Knowing the signs of a problem
Normal calf presentation will see both front feet and head coming first, but that does not necessarily mean things are fine.
If the front legs are crossing over when the calf is in the birth canal, this is a sign of big shoulders being squeezed through the pelvis.
Keep in mind the hips will be wider than the shoulders, increasing the risk of the calf becoming stuck. An early call for veterinary assistance may be needed.
If the calf’s tongue is swollen, the animal needs to be delivered immediately. The same goes if you notice red or brown fluids in the water bag.
Other things to look for is your arm rotating when placed inside the cow, as the cow’s uterus is twisted and veterinary intervention will be needed.
Trailing front limbs will need correcting, which may mean pushing the calf back inside the cow. In the case of twins, make sure the legs are correctly linked to one calf.
When calves are being delivered backwards, speed is essential to prevent the calf from drowning once the naval cord is ruptured.
8. Using the jack
In the wrong hands, a calving jack increases the risk of an injured or dead calf. It should only be used by an experienced operator.
As the cow pushes, lever the bar downwards in a smooth motion. Once the cow relaxes, raise the bar upwards, and at this point, take up the slack by using the ratchet.
If the calf gets stuck at the hips, release the tension on ropes regularly to let the calf breathe. Re-apply lubricant, then try to work one side of the calf’s hips out by levering the jack to one side.
9. Don’t hang calves on a gate
If a calf is born backwards, or struggling to breathe due to fluid in the lungs, do not hang the animal over a gate.
When hung upside down on a gate, the calf’s internal organs will press on the lungs, further restricting the calf’s ability to breathe. More often than not, the fluid coming from the calf’s mouth is from the stomach, not the lungs.
Instead, rest the calf’s body on the ground and raise the back legs by hand to waist-height for 30 seconds. Lower and repeat as necessary.
10. Post-calving care
Once the calf is born, check the mouth and airways are clear.
Sprinkle cold water by hand to shock a calf into breathing if needed. Don’t dunk it in cold water, as this will lower the calf’s core body temperature, increasing the risk of hypothermia.
Always set the calf in an upright position with the two front legs tucked either side of the chest. This opens the lungs and aids breathing.
Following a difficult labour, pain relief may be needed for both the cow and calf. Check with your vet about which products would be suitable for use.