Help Weak Calves Survive and Thrive

A calf born weak has an accumulation of problems, compounded by inadequate quantity and quality of colostrum.
A calf born weak has an accumulation of problems, compounded by inadequate quantity and quality of colostrum.
(Portia Stewart)

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.

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, Elanco Animal Health.

Ideal body condition scores for cows at calving are between 5.5-6, and for heifers 6.5-7 is ideal. 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.”

Monitor calving

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.

An actual calf shelter may not even be needed, but instead just a place where calves can get away from the mud and muck stirred up by the cows. Hilton had a client in practice who would put a single-strand electric wire up in the corner of each calving paddock so the calves could walk under it. “This would allow the calves to have an area away from the cows that never got muddy. The calf huts were used the first couple of weeks of the calving season in case there was inclement weather, but after that no shelter was provided. The corner ‘calf club house’ was used in each calving paddock until the cows and calves went to pasture.”

Hilton adds that if the producer has more than one cow, he should use some form of the Sandhills Calving System that can reduce transmission of diarrhea-causing pathogens to newborn calves in the herd. “It is one of the best innovations in the beef industry in years.”

Hilton says the real question we need to ask is why are we calving in inclement weather in the first place? “I know in some parts of the country we calve a bit earlier than we would like so we can get the majority of breeding done in weather that is more conducive to the bull’s libido. Our bulls that were supposed to be breeding cows from the middle of July through the middle of August this past year were likely doing very little breeding.”

Caring for the weak calf

Though it may not be possible in large calving herds, if your producers can give individual attention to calves when needed, there are some strategies Hilton suggests. If you find a calf that you think is really chilled, Hilton says take its temperature first. A temperature of about 94-100°F is mild-to-moderate hypothermia. “You can likely raise the calf’s internal temperature by feeding him two quarts of some warm colostrum or milk. Blowing some warm air on him and placing him inside the barn or house and letting him breath in some warm air from a heater can also facilitate warmth.”

If his temperature is below 94°F, that is severe hypothermia and the best way to warm the calf is immersion in warm (105–108°F) water. “Keep warming the water and remove the calf when his temperature is 100°F, then dry him off vigorously with a towel and use a hair dryer to dry him completely, being sure to get all skin surfaces,” Hilton says. “These calves should also get warm colostrum or milk.”

Having colostrum or milk on-hand for calves needing assistance at birth can pay off in getting them off to a good start. Hilton uses the “2x6 and 4x12” rule of thumb – two-quarts by 6 hours of age and four quarts by 12 hours of age.

Get her back on her feet

The post-calving cow or heifer needs adequate nutrition to withstand cold temperatures, produce milk for her calf and start preparing her for the breeding season. Hilton says nutritionists and veterinarians can help their clients formulate a balanced ration to accomplish these goals while keeping an eye on the bottom line. “This ration will not necessarily be more expensive than a poorer ration,” he says. “I have seen very many times in my career where we formulate a ration that meets the energy, protein, vitamin and mineral requirements of a group of cows and it is cheaper than the current ration. Most times the current ration is full feed of a low-quality hay. Don’t be tempted to add a very expensive convenience feed to solve all the woes of the herd. The time-tested strategy of testing feedstuffs and balancing a ration may not be ‘sexy’, but it works.”

Hilton says if a thin cow calves and is fed well post-calving, she will respond with increased milk production and hopefully will only lose a few weeks on her calving interval. “If this same cow is underfed post-calving she has a high likelihood to not getting pregnant during the subsequent breeding season. Pregnancy is a physiological luxury to the cow. Not enough groceries and she has no biological reason to rebreed.”

You can’t change the weather conditions from year to year, but you can help your clients heed recommendations from other experts that can help them through situations like the drought. Hilton says his area of Indiana got some rain in August/September that revived their pastures, but, “It was a good thing our Extension forage experts let it be known that cows needed to move off of the pastures during the drought so the forage would come back when it finally rained.”

Especially during the down years, it’s still important to encourage your clients to keep detailed records on their cows, calves and breeding and calving seasons.

“The most important thing you should have done this past winter was to have someone other than the owner or person who sees the cows frequently to body condition score the cows a couple of times during the winter,” Hilton suggests. “If they are losing weight, this needs to be corrected ASAP. Preventing all the problems we’ve discussed is much more rewarding than treating them.”

Read more about treating sick and weak calves in these articles on BovineVetOnline:


Winter calf housing

Cold temperatures and newborn calves can be a recipe for disaster, but there are several calf-housing strategies that can give winter calves a fighting chance. W. Mark Hilton, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, says wet, windy and cold days is the weather we want to avoid for young calves, so during those times is when beef producers should consider some sort of calf housing. “With the housing, they don’t have a wet, cold coat when we get a rain or wet snow, so they are not using calories to keep warm,” Hilton says. “The reduced stress also equals better health. On a cold, sunny day, however, the calves will lay outside. It’s pretty amazing how smart they are at just a few days of age.”

There are a variety of types of calf-housing that are available from commercial huts to home-made versions. The most important aspect of the housing that it is inaccessible to cows because cows create a muddy mess that can be full of diarrhea-causing pathogens. Likewise, the calf housing should only hold a maximum of 10-12 calves, Hilton says. “I worry about disease build-up if we cram too many calves in one area.”

Hilton has seen everything from old hog “A huts” to ones built out of rejected desk tops to commercial calf huts. Anything that protects the top and three sides works fine.

No matter which housing type is used, some sort of bedding should be used. “We’ve used straw or cornstalks for bedding,” Hilton says. “The calves defecate and urinate so little that producers just keep adding more bedding if it gets even the slightest bit dirty. It gets cleaned out at the end of the calving season.”

Hilton says many times the huts only get used for a few weeks because the goal is to calve in a time of the year that the calves can be born outside. “I remember an early April snowstorm when I was in Iowa and the producers that started calving right around that time said they saved enough calves to pay for the huts many times over.”

To give calves some extra room around the shelter, Hilton says you can put an electric wire around where the calf huts are located, which gives the calves a place to lie down outside with no cows “messing up” the area. “The hot wire is high enough that the calves can just walk under it,” he explains. “One of my clients in Iowa would bed this area lightly with stalks or straw and he called it the ‘calf club’.”


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