Cows are getting ready for the calving season, but producers may not be prepared, says North Dakota State University Extension Service beef specialist Carl Dahlen.
Leading up to the breeding season, a portion of the cows in beef herds will be cycling. Even in situations where producers have good fences, bulls can manage to find their way through if cows in heat are on the other side of the fence.
“Cows that happen to get bred early or those pregnant with twins often will surprise producers by calving well ahead of the expected calving dates,” Dahlen says. “Advanced preparation will go a long way to ensure the health of both the new calves and the cows that delivered them.”
One issue producers could face is difficult births. A large percentage of dystocia, or calving difficulty in cattle having a single calf, is due to the calf being too large to pass through the birth canal easily.
Intervention in these cases is a matter of attaching pulling chains to the calf, working with the contractions of the dam, and applying just enough force to remove the calf while avoiding trauma to the cow.
A major cause of dystocia in twin births is malpresentation. These are cases when the body of one calf is prohibiting the body of the second calf from successfully passing through the birth canal.
“With eight legs, two heads and at least four different possible ways the two calves might be situated all in a very confined space, it is easy to imagine problems occurring,” Dahlen says. “In preparing for this type of delivery, it helps to go over the possible calf presentations in your mind prior to entering the cow.”
Here is his advice on assisting with the delivery:
Once you decide to go into the cow, be as clean as possible. Clean the area around the birth canal and the calving chains, and make sure you are wearing plastic artificial insemination sleeves. The uterus is a sterile environment and any bacteria you put in the uterus has the potential to cause an infection that may lead to rebreeding difficulty.
Relax and concentrate on what you feel: Which direction are the calves facing? Are their heads properly presented between their legs, or are they facing away from the rest of the body? Do the two legs you feel belong to the same calf?
If you find a cow that has been calving for a while, the calf may feel slightly dry when you enter the cow. In this case, use plenty of lubricant to make the calf come out more easily. You never can use too much.
Getting malpresented calves sorted out can be a chore, but rushing may do more harm than good.
A mechanical calf puller can be one of the producer’s best and worst tools. When assisting with delivery, work with the cow and her contractions. Remember that any trauma caused during the delivery will result in a longer time for the calf to recover from delivery and before the cow starts to cycle again.
“If you find yourself in a situation that is beyond your capabilities, do not hesitate to call your veterinarian or a neighbour with more calving experience,” Dahlen says.
CALL FOR HELP
Because early-bred cows or those with twins have calves that show up ahead of schedule, a greater proportion of these calves die during or just after delivery. Having your calving area ready well in advance of your first due date and doing everything you can to save these early calves is very important, he adds.
Have a clean, dry place for the cow and calves, and a warm area or warming box to put cold calves into until they are warm and dry. If possible, place the cow and her calves in their own pen for close monitoring. This also may help a cow accept a twin that was abandoned in the cow yard while the dam accepted the other calf.
Calves must consume colostrum, or first milk, soon after birth to attain immunity from the cow. Ideally, calves would consume some colostrum within six hours after birth, but realistically, calves that experienced a difficult birth need to have colostrum within the first 24 hours of life. Absorption of the antibodies in colostrum begins to decline as soon as foreign matter (straw, manure, milk, etc.) enters the calf’s mouth, so the earlier in life a calf can consume colostrum, the better its immunity will be.
“Without adequate colostrum early in life, maintaining a healthy calf will be difficult,” Dahlen says.
If a cow has inadequate colostrum, producers have two options: Collect colostrum from other cows and give it fresh or frozen/thawed to calves, or mix colostrum replacement products with warm water and give it to the calves. Producers may need to use an esophageal feeder if a calf is not suckling on its own.
Producers with cases of Johne’s disease in their herd may wish to use the colostrum replacement products because the disease can be transmitted to calves through colostrum from infected cows, Dahlen says.
Cows that experience difficult deliveries also face chances of having a retained placenta (fetal membranes). A placenta sticking halfway out of the uterus can allow bacteria to enter the uterus, but producers need to consider whether to remove the retained placenta. Using excess force to remove a retained placenta could compromise the cow’s fertility due to damage caused by pulling on a placenta still attached to the uterus.
If the cow appears healthy, often the placenta will fall out in a few days. Candidates for removal are cows that are noticeably ill, have an elevated temperature or have excess placental material hanging from them. If removing the placenta, use steady, gentle force and treat any entry into the cow as you would a calving, using a sterile technique. Also, consult with your veterinarian about when removing a retained placenta is appropriate.
“For many beef producers, calving season is just around the corner,” Dahlen says. “Being prepared will make the start of the calving season easier on you and your cows.”