The ongoing drought has impacted all segments of the cattle industry, and some of the hardest hit have been beef cows. Lack of available forage in many areas of the country has caused many beef cows to enter the calving season in less than stellar body condition.
A calf born weak has an accumulation of problems, compounded by inadequate quantity and quality of colostrum. It’s too late to pour the nutrition into these girls to improve body condition prior to spring calving which is already going on in some areas of the country, so attention needs to be placed on her new calf should it be born weaker than normal.
A calf born weak has an accumulation of problems, compounded by inadequate quantity and quality of colostrum. “He is more likely to have increased morbidity and mortality throughout his life,” says W. Mark Hilton, DVM, Dipl., ABVP, Purdue University.
Ideal body condition scores for cows at calving are between 5.5-6, and for heifers 6.5-7 is ideal. Hilton says while poor cow body condition (<4.5 for cows and <5.5 for heifers) may not result in lower calf birth weights (this is why feeding cows less pre-calving does not change dystocia scores), calves may be born weaker. “The cows will also be weaker and will take longer to deliver the calf, putting more stress on the calf,” Hilton explains. “Colostrum quality and quantity will be reduced so calf morbidity will be increased.
Hilton is more concerned about calf health than cow health when cows are thin at calving. “Nature wants to always protect the health of the mother if there is limited nutrition for the pregnant dam,” he says. “Losing the calf is bad, but in nature, losing the dam is worse.”
Because weakened cows in poor body condition may have more calving issues, Hilton says it’s very important to monitor this year’s calving as close as possible. “The owners should have some colostrum replacer on hand in case they have cows (more likely young cows and heifers) that have inadequate colostrum. Beef herd health veterinarians should read the research to see what products have science backing them up so they will recommend the best products to their clients.
Hilton says if a thin cow is taking too long to have a calf – the rule is “progress every hour” – assistance should be given so the calf does not die during a prolonged delivery.
Shelter calves, not cows
Advise your clients to think strategically about shelter during calving season. Shelter that is available for cows can turn into “a cesspool of mud, manure and infectious organisms,” Hilton says. Instead, have them focus on providing calf-only shelter (see sidebar). “Calf huts in the pasture can be a great advantage if calves are born in inclement weather,” Hilton says.