A calving checklist: Get ready ahead of time

Some useful stuff here for you cow-calf guys. But I have a shorter check list: Answer yes or no. 

Do you have any cows? Yes

How many? One

What kind? The one the old lady milks every morning. 

And I have never, not even once, had to get up in the middle of a cold winter night to pull a calf out of one of those steers. — jtl 

cows and calves in a pasturePhoto: File

Before calving

Adequate nutrition is important, but you don’t want heifers getting too fat. “Feeding too much is not only expensive, but could lead to difficulties and dystocia,” he explains. If the heifer is too fat, the birth canal may not be as roomy (too much fat in the tissues) and the heifer will tire sooner during labour and quit trying to push the calf out.

Handling cattle before calving, getting them used to people walking among them, getting them used to the maternity facilities ahead of time, can make things easier and less stressful when they calve. “If you have to chase a cow to get her in, it does more harm than we realize in terms of calf viability, bonding, cleaning, etc.”

If a group of heifers have never been in the maternity pen, or in the barn, it pays to quietly put them in ahead of calving, with some gentle older cows that know the way. Feeding a little hay in there can help them feel at ease. If they’ve never been in the barn, do a few trial runs, easing them into the barn with an older, quiet cow. If heifers are not afraid to go into the barn or the pen, this will make things easier if you have to help them calve or need to put them in the barn to calve on a cold night.

“If you are moving them from winter pasture or feeding area to a calving pasture or paddock, make sure the calving area is as clean as possible, with lots of bedding. This can help keep udders clean and prevent scours and other issues,” says Hendrick.

Bedding and windbreaks

“If a calf can lie in bedding, so the legs are buried, some researchers say this is equivalent to ambient temperature being about five degrees (Celsius) warmer,” she says. The bedding serves as cushion (between the calf and frozen ground), helps keep calves dry, acts like a windbreak, and traps warm air around the calf.

“Wind fences and calf shelters also provide huge benefits. We had a severe winter last year, with people calving at 40 below zero. It was a challenge just trying to keep calves alive. Most people consider January and February the toughest months to calve, but you know what you are getting into and can plan accordingly. By contrast, March is so unpredictable you never really know what you will get,” she says.

Prepared for calving

“Having a box stall with a head gate to restrain the cow and a swing gate makes your vet’s life easier and less risk for people getting injured,” says Windeyer. “A regular hydraulic chute or something you’d use for preg-checking can be a nightmare when cows go down.” With a swing gate you can open it and the cow can be lying comfortably while you finish pulling the calf or doing the C-section. You just need to make sure she is not choking in the headgate; have one that is easy to pop open, or with straight sides rather than curved to fit the head and neck.

“I like chutes with sides that actually split. You can open the top part to do a C-section, or the bottom part to suckle a calf. It’s all about human safety as well as ease of handling and working with the cattle,” she says.

“We always recommend using an obstetrical sleeve when checking or helping a cow,” says Hendrick. “This protects both the cow and the person. In Canada we are lucky in that we have very little brucellosis anymore — just a couple bison herds. Our cattle population is free of brucellosis, but we still promote using the sleeve for protection if you need to examine a cow to see if she is progressing in labour or there are complications,” says Hendrick.

“The sleeve will keep you clean, and helps protect the cow from contamination. You also need a bucket and scoop for warm water, and soap or disinfectant to wash the cow’s hind end before you examine her, and a good obstetrical lubricant to put onto your sleeve and glove before you insert your arm. Many people think that’s what the soap is for, but soap can be very irritating to the membranes. It lifts off the mucus that protects the lining of the birth canal,” he explains.

Windeyer suggests a gentle soap like Betadine for scrubbing the cow, and plenty of lube. “One trick is to put the lube in alongside the calf with a stomach tube and pump. This can really help, especially if you are working with a dead calf that’s dry, when all the birth fluids have been lost. If you can insert the tube into the birth canal past where you can force your hand, and pump in some lube, this may help. But some calves are just too big and should be delivered by C-section. If you can’t get your hand between the calf and the pelvis, the lube isn’t going to help,” she says.

“Another thing to have on hand is baler twine to tie the tail and keep it out of the way and out of your face,” says Hendrick. “If the cow has a halter on, just tie the twine to the halter rather than to the fence or chute. Then if the cow falls down, her tail is tied to the halter instead of something immobile — which could damage the end of the tail.”

Make sure OB chains and handles are clean, and stored in a clean place, not out in the barn where they may get dusty. “Dirty equipment is a common way that bacteria are introduced into the cow,” says Windeyre. “This is especially true if you happen to tear the lining of the uterus when using contaminated equipment. A problem with handles is that sometimes as they get older and worn, they don’t grip onto the chain as well. If you are putting your weight into pulling a calf and the handle slips, you may go flying onto your back,” she says.

“Be sure your calf puller is in working condition and not rusty,” says Hendrick. “Some people get by using a rope or come-along rather than a calf jack, but the calf jack provides better leverage if used properly,” he says.

“If a heifer is sore after a difficult birth, it often pays to give her a painkiller like Meticam or Anafen. There are some good drugs that will alleviate some of the pain and allow her to mother the calf,” says Hendrick. She’ll be more inclined to bond with that calf if she’s not feeling miserable.

Be prepared to take care of calves

“When I first started veterinary work, there was a drug on the market called doxipram. This is a respiratory stimulant and we can still get pharmacies to compound this drug. This one is amazing and will stimulate calves that won’t start breathing. You need a prescription from your veterinarian to get it since it is no longer commercially available. You might discuss, ahead of calving, the things your veterinarian might recommend, or not recommend.”

Have towels on hand for rubbing and drying calves. “If you had to assist the birth, you need to get the calf breathing, and dry it so it won’t get chilled. If the calf wasn’t born in a clean place, disinfect the navel stump. We usually recommend an iodine solution — a mixture of iodine and alcohol. Dip the navel once or twice, until it dries up and is no longer vulnerable to infection.”

If the calf is unable to nurse the cow for some reason, you need colostrum on hand and a way to get it into the calf. “Frozen colostrum from one of your own cows is best (to thaw and feed) but a commercial product in a bag (to mix with warm water) is convenient,” he says. Be sure to buy the highest quality colostrum replacement, rather than a colostrum supplement. The latter doesn’t contain enough antibodies.

“If you have a cow restrained that you assisted at calving and she has decent colostrum, you can milk a little from her to save and freeze, or to give to her own calf if necessary,” says Hendrick. This can be fed with a nipple bottle if the calf can nurse, or with an esophageal feeder if the calf is unable or reluctant to nurse.

“Sometimes a person is tired and doesn’t take the time to try to feed the calf with a bottle, and uses the esophageal tube. But it’s much better for the calf to suckle; this puts the milk into the stomach (where it is properly digested), rather than into the rumen.” Suckling stimulates opening of the esophageal groove that bypasses the rumen and puts milk into the simple stomach. Suckling also encourages the calf to nurse, and it may try to nurse its mother after it gets a taste of what you fed it.

“If you are using the esophageal probe feeder, check the bulb at the end of the tube to make sure it is still smooth. This bulb can get roughed up by the teeth if you’ve used it to get fluid and electrolytes into older calves.” They often protest and grab the bulb with their teeth before you can get it past the teeth and down the throat.

“Those little scratches harbour bacteria and can be hard on the throat. We’ve opened up dead calves during necropsy that had infections all down the throat from this scraping, and can’t swallow. These probes are not very expensive and it’s wise to keep a couple new ones on hand, and keep a separate one for tube-feeding colostrum versus the one you use for giving fluids to sick calves,” says Hendrick.

Other things to have on hand at calving include a good flashlight with fresh batteries, and maybe a toolbox or plastic carrier to keep everything handy that you take out to the barn or pen to deal with a calving emergency or treat a calf. A thermos jug is handy — something large enough to put a bottle of colostrum into if you take it out to the barn in cold weather. Warm water in the jug can keep colostrum the right temperature.

“A calf sled is useful — for pulling a newborn calf to the barn,” says Hendrick. You can pull one of these by hand or behind a quad, and the cow will follow since she is able to see and smell her calf as you go along. This is a lot easier (and safer) than trying to carry that calf.

Pasture management

Claire Windeyer, assistant professor, University of Calgary.

Claire Windeyer says preparation for calving actually starts with feeding and pasture management of the cows. “It helps if the cows calve in a different pasture than where they overwintered — for scours prevention. Having a clean area for the cows to calve is essential. In conjunction with that, it is important to move pairs out of that calving pasture as quickly as possible,” she says.

“Put them into a separate pasture and, if possible, group the pairs according to age of calves — so all the calves in one pasture are within three weeks of age.” Then you are not putting new babies in with older calves that may already be shedding scours pathogens. Those pathogens in the environment can increase exponentially as calving season progresses; calves born later in the season may be exposed to much greater concentrations if they are kept in the same environment as the early-born calves.

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