No time is more important to beef producers than calving.

“Doing everything we can to ensure the birth of a live, healthy calf is our responsibility as cattlemen, and it has a great impact on the business aspect of our operations,” says Carl Dahlen, North Dakota State University Extension Service beef cattle specialist. “Advanced preparation will go a long way to ensure the health of the new calves and the cows that delivered them.”

A pre-calving vaccination program is among the steps producers can take to help make sure calving goes smoothly.

“Administering vaccines to pregnant cows in late gestation is one management strategy that can help reduce the risk of calf diarrhea, or scours,” NDSU Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist Gerald Stokka says.

These vaccines stimulate the cow’s immune system so that as colostrum (first secretions into the udder) begins to form, high amounts of immune factors are available to the calf in its first nursing. These immune factors, such as antibodies and living cells, are concentrated in colostrum, so even small amounts can be helpful in providing the calf with protection against specific pathogens.

Scours vaccines should be administered twice in the first year and then annually. Depending on the vaccine, the timing between the first and second dose and the dose given prior to calving will differ somewhat, so producers should follow their veterinarian’s recommendation on the vaccine’s use, Stokka says.

Later calving seasons, providing more space, moving cows not calved to clean ground, providing clean calving areas, proper feeding of pregnant cows and environmental protection also need to be part of reducing the risk of calf diarrhea, according to the specialists.

Calving Area With late-winter and early spring calving seasons, 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.

Have a clean, dry place for the cow and calves. Calves that are not mothered properly and do not nurse immediately can become hypothermic (too cold). A warming box or warm area is critical to survival and colostrum absorption. Calves that have not nursed and are hypothermic should be provided with fresh colostrum or a colostrum substitute to help their body temperature return to normal.

For optimal health, calving pairs also need adequate space in a dedicated calving area. Especially be careful if calving in winter feeding areas because pathogen buildup through time may make these areas less than ideal for calving. Calving areas that are wet, dirty or poorly ventilated can harbor disease.

“Plan calving areas closely and consider a calving rotation system such as the Sandhills Calving System that allows younger calves to be born in clean pens/pastures away from older calves,” Dahlen says.

Colostrum Watch cow-calf pairs after birth to make sure the cow is mothering the calf and the calf is suckling.

“Calves must consume colostrum, or first milk, soon after birth to obtain immunity from the cow,” Stokka says. “Ideally, calves should consume colostrum within a few hours of birth. Calves that experienced a difficult birth may need a greater volume of colostrum because absorption is impaired in calves with calving stress. Absorption of the antibodies in colostrum begins to decline as soon as any material (straw, manure, milk, etc.) enters the mouth of the calf, so the earlier in life a calf can consume colostrum, the better its immune status will be.”

Without adequate colostrum early in life, maintaining a healthy calf will be difficult. If a cow has inadequate colostrum, producers have two options:

  • Collect colostrum from other cows and give it fresh or frozen/thawed to calves whose dams have inadequate colostrum.
  • Mix colostrum replacement products with warm water and give it to the calves. Producers with cases of Johne’s disease in their herd may want to use the colostrum replacement products because the disease can be transmitted to calves through colostrum from infected cows. If a calf is not suckling on its own, producers may have to give colostrum with an esophageal feeder.

Treatment of Sick Calves In general, the earlier sick calves can be identified and treated, the greater the chance they will respond to treatment and recover rapidly. Become an expert in young calf behavior and recognize the symptoms associated with neonatal calf conditions very quickly.

Calves with diarrhea will lose a great deal of essential body fluids and electrolytes, and can become acidotic. A 100-pound calf that is 8 percent dehydrated will need 1 gallon of fluid just to get back to normal. The calf also will need supplemental electrolytes and may need bicarbonate therapy to help return the acid base balance to normal.

Producers should use antibiotics only when they suspect an animal has a systemic infection and only after consulting with their veterinarian, according to Stokka.

“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.”