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Beef 911: Equipment for the calving barn

When calving season hits, there is no time to go shopping — so here’s a checklist of what you need

As with any work area on the farm, having the proper equipment, keeping it maintained and disinfected, and stocking the area with the right pharmaceuticals will help ensure a successful calving season.

The one critical component is with biosecurity. With many cows and their mothers moving through the calving area at a stressful time, it is important to have an area which can be cleaned easily and sprayed periodically with Virkon disinfectant.

I like to have a boot dip close by — for use when both going into and out of the calving area. This is especially critical when treating sick calves before assisting in the delivery of a calf. You do not want to be the one who transmits disease on your premises. Change coveralls frequently and have a supply of towels or rags to keep yourself dry and clean.

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Equipment should consist of a functioning calf puller. There are many good models on the market, all of which function well. Make sure they only require one person to operate. You want to be close to the back end of the cow where you can constantly check tension and placement of the chains, and yet still be able to operate the puller.

Some of the fancier ones would pull one leg then the other in a step-by-step motion. My only problem here is that if the calf is that tight and will take that type of motion to extract it, the pull may be excessive.

You will need at least two pulling handles and two chains and some even like a head snare. The handles should be large enough to get your hands in comfortably and grip the links of the chains without slipping. Always keep spares as handles and chains can easily get lost in the straw. They are cheap and when needed they are critical to have around. Always clean and disinfect and hang to dry. Chains also fatigue and rust, so replace every couple of years.

Other supplies include a package of good-quality obstetrical gloves, and a waterproof calving suit which can easily be hosed down. Obstetrical gloves come in many strengths and colours. For calving, you need the stronger, more expensive ones, which take a lot of abuse before ripping. The real thin ones are used for artificial insemination where fine feel is critical and they will rip too easily during calvings. Have elastics, hemostats or towel clamps to keep them up on your arms.

Surgical soap which is non-irritating to the vulval area (and your skin as well) is a must. I prefer “Endure” and with that a good source of warm clean water. Although the iodine soap products are good as far as killing bacteria I find they have a tendency to dry out your skin on repeated usage. Lots and lots of sterile lubricant purchased by the gallon complete with a hand pump will minimize the friction on many a tough calving and can make the difference between saving a calf and losing it especially when it relieves pressure around the head.

As far as medications are concerned, your tags (management and RFID tags) and shots for the calf including vitamin A and D plus selenium must be on hand. Have enough for the entire calving season. In some herds, metaphylactic antibiotics are used to prevent navel infections. Again, have a season’s supply.

If the cow is caught, before releasing her always check to make sure she is fully tagged and has no other health issues which need attending while in the maternity pen. Strip her teats out to make sure none are blocked and look for evidence of mastitis. Some producers tube feed the calf if it has been a hard delivery.

All farmers by now should have either a commercially made maternity pen, calving chute, or a hand-constructed calving restraint device. A squeeze chute is definitely not the place to pull a calf and this is where wrecks can easily happen if cows squat during the calving process.

Other critical drugs may be a respiratory stimulant which is a prescription drug from your veterinarian. One cc of a respiratory stimulant given in the vein or squirted under the tongue can greatly facilitate breathing. Again, you need to talk to your veterinarian on how to give it and if it is even available. Epinephrine (adrenalin) can also be given as a last-ditch effort to get the heart going. Because speed is of the essence, these last two products need to be close at hand with syringe and needle ready. Some producers even have oxygen delivery apparatuses which can facilitate breathing.

A calf esophageal feeder is also an absolute necessity and I like producers having one to use for colostrum on newborn calves, with the old one from last year kept for sick or scouring calves. Label each one accordingly and disinfect them (including the feeder tube).

Keep the calving area and especially the maternity pen as clean as possible and disinfect the puller and calving chains with something like Virkon disinfectant. Use other strict biosecurity practices, such as not allowing visitors during calving season or, at the minimum, have them wear plastic disposable booties (which you will provide). Calving season is when you need a biosecurity crackdown.

With calving cows around, always have a hazing prop such as a paddle, rattle or hockey stick around. We all know even very quiet cows at or before calving may become overdefensive so make sure the route to get cows into the calving area is planned with cross gates where needed and escape routes.

If using a sled to bring in calves, have a long lead rope to keep you away from the cow. Many farmers have sleds or wagons built to pull behind a quad, gator or horse or simply by hand.

Again, I can’t stress enough — watch for your safety as calving time is where the majority of farm injuries with regards to livestock occur.

Be prepared with as much equipment and supplies because when calving season hits, there is no time to go shopping. Let’s not forget the rechargeable flashlight. Many have high candle power and some even get the mining-type lights to wear on their head.

Have a great 2015 calving season as the calves you save have never been more valuable.

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