Only one to two months ago the spring-calving cows were calving, the temperatures were colder and the calving pastures were already covered with muck and manure. Experience would say that you do not want to ask cow-calf operators how calving is then, because the response would be less than objective, reflecting bone-chilling cold and not enough sleep.
If you wait too long, perhaps until this fall, time will have mellowed most of the events and one soon has difficulty matching a calving season with particular problems. Plus, it may be too late to make the necessary changes to reduce calving losses. Now is perhaps the best time to make a few notes on what to change for next year.
The first step is to list the dead calves. Hopefully, your cattle are in a record system that will provide that information. If not, grab a piece of paper and pencil and list the calves. Your calving notebook should have the dead calves checked off and a brief notation on what happened to each. Until all the calves are listed, the shock of lost opportunities has not had its full impact.
Can you identify a pattern of problems?
Was most of the death loss right at delivery and involving 2-year-old heifers? This could indicate that sire selection needs to be done more carefully, with attention being paid to low birth weight EPD sires for heifers. Perhaps the heifers were underdeveloped. This could contribute to more calving difficulty than necessary. Do you provide assistance to heifers after they have been in stage II of labor for one hour?
Was the death loss more prevalent after the calves had reached 5 days to 2 weeks of age? This of course often means that calf diarrhea (or scours) is a major concern. Calf scours will be more likely to occur to calves from first-calf heifers.
Calves that receive inadequate amounts of colostrum within the first six hours of life are five to six times more likely to die from calf scours. Calves that are born to thin heifers are weakened at birth and receive less colostrum, which compounds their likelihood of scours. Often, these same calves were born via a difficult delivery and adds to the chances of getting sick and dying.
All of this means that we need to reassess the bred heifer growing program to assure that the heifers were in a body condition score of 6 (moderate flesh) at calving time. If calf diarrhea is a significant cause of loss and expense, visit with your large animal veterinarian about other management changes that may help. Pre-calving vaccinations of the cows may be recommended in some cases.
Do you use the same trap or pasture each year for calving? There may be a buildup of bacteria or viruses that contribute to calf diarrhea in that pasture. This particular calving pasture may need a rest for the upcoming calving season. Plus, it is always a good idea to get new calves and their mothers out of the calving pasture as soon as they can be moved comfortably to a new pasture to get them away from other potential calf scour organisms.
Thanks to Dr. Kris Ringwall of North Dakota State University for this excellent suggestion to study the calf records now and start to make adjustments. — Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension animal scientist