Common Calving Issues and how to Avoid Them

Published on Sun, 01/08/2023 - 10:00am

Common Calving Issues and how to Avoid Them

By Jaclyn Krymowski

There may be no more special time on the ranch than calving season. This next generation represents a culmination of time and energy invested in your breeding program and preparing for the future.

And while this season is full of excitement and hopes, it is also busy and can be filled with anxiety. This is natural. If you raise cattle long enough, you’re going to encounter your fair share of unforeseen calving problems and difficult births.

Though the list of potential issues is long and you can predict exactly what will happen, you can arm yourself with a plan. When you and your employees are prepared for some of the most common issues, you can rest assured your team will respond quickly and appropriately, even in the most challenging situations.

Causes and considerations
Birth weights play a very large role in calving problems. High birth weights are often the culprit of dystocia and injury to the cow. They are impacted by many things, including the genetics of the parents, calf sex, cow age and her nutritional status.

Cow anatomy, including frame, hip structure, maternal instinct and birth canal size are also major factors in calving success or failure.

Both cow and calf issues can be mitigated by advanced preparation. But the genetic components, and even freak anomalies, are another case. Having the right tools, people and resources in place when calving season begins, will increase your chances for a happy ending for the cow and her calf when the worst happens.

Preparing for the calving window
Everything starts at the time of breeding. Initial sire selection can play an important role in the calving season, largely due to its impact on birth weights. Selecting calving ease bulls for first calf heifers is a common practice.

But sire selection isn’t the factor to consider. Another important consideration is the time of breeding, whether that is done via AI or pasture breeding.

Beginning with first-time heifers during both the breeding and calving season can help them recover more quickly. This also gives them a longer window before having to be bred back in time with the rest of their herd.

According to Olivia Amundson and Taylor Grussing of the South Dakota State University extension service in their article Keep Watch of Young Cows During Calving, cows are usually rebred at 80 days postpartum. But allowing heifers to calve first gives them closer to 100 days postpartum to hit the desired 365-day calving interval.

As calving approaches, be sure to look at your budget and consider hiring extra help, if needed, to assist with calf checks. Be mindful also of some additional costs that are associated with this season and budget for some unforeseen events.

Common costs associated with calving difficulty include vet fees, labor, reduced herd fertility and increased calf morbidity or mortality.

The root of the problems
Among the biggest culprits to calving issues are improper nutrition, immaturity and genetics as they contribute to birth weights, pelvis size, frame and overall cow and calf health.

In herds where cows and heifers are thinner than ideal at calving, there is an increased trend of dystocias, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension bulletin Calving Management and Reducing Calf Losses in Beef Herds by Steve Niemeyer and Becky Funk.

Thinner cows are more likely and rapidly to become physically exhausted during delivery and require assistance. However, overweight cows can also be highly susceptible to dystocia due to increased pelvic fat, which causes restrictions in the birth canal. Fat is also associated with weak or decreased muscle tone.

Heifers that are fed below-standard diets reflect a greater dystocia rate due to the limited growth in their skeletal structure. This also contributes to a smaller pelvic area, according to the University of Georgia extension bulletin Factors Affecting Calving Difficulty, originally by Timothy Wilson.

An appropriate ration that fit the energy requirements of the cow ensures she will not be over or underweight, especially heading into calving season.

Environmental factors also contribute to calving issues. Wilson’s study noted that temperatures are responsible for about 55% of calving difficulties.

Temperature can also impact nutrition as cows are likely to consume feed in less-than-ideal amounts in extreme heat or cold.

Statistically, calves dropped in the fall tend to weigh less when compared to calves born during winter or spring. Nutrient intake also plays a role in this. As more supplemental feeding occurs, more nutrients are being consumed, which leads to a larger and faster growth rate.

“High feeding levels pre-calving had no significant impact on birth weight or dystocia,” writes Wilson. “ Reduced feeding levels, however, can actually reduce cow weight gain, decrease milk production, increase incidence of scours and, most importantly, decrease pregnancy rate.”.

Prevention tips
It is impossible to eliminate all the factors that could cause difficult calving, but there are still several elements that can be utilized to prevent many of them.

• Selecting the right bull for different groups is a huge initial step. In most cases, it is ideal to select a calving ease bull for first-calf heifers and cows with a history of difficult calving.
• Shortening the calving season will help make the process less labor-intensive. Starting with the heifers calving before the cows allows more time to focus labor on their immediate and post-calving needs. A shorter calving season helps to keep calves grouped better and can keep them tight in weight. It is also better for feeding management so there aren’t a variety of outliers that may require more special attention. Keeping ideal body condition scores through the final trimester (about 4.5-5.5 for cows and 6 for heifers) should always be a priority.
• Maintaining a feeding schedule close to calving may also be helpful. While there are differing opinions and statistics, some experts firmly believe that late evening feedings decrease the likelihood of overnight calving.
• Lastly, observation is key in terms of knowing what is going on with your first-time calvers and your cows. Keeping track of which animals are getting ready to calve or may have calved while you were away can help with the overall flow of calving season. A check about every three hours is most ideal if you can manage it or budget for seasonal help.

Be mindful of the postpartum period. First-time calvers especially should be monitored to ensure they fully pass their placenta. Retained placenta issues are likely to cause issues like metritis and difficulty rebreeding. Also be on the lookout for uterine prolapses and vaginal lacerations.

Every operation struggles with calving difficulties in one capacity or another, but having protocols and being prepared  can make all the difference.

And you and the rest of your team can more fully enjoy the calving season and experience less stress when the rush of calves starts to hit the ground.