The consulting cattle nutritionists at Nebraska’s Great Plains Livestock Consulting group offer a couple of pieces of good advice on the impact the continuing drought has had on calf health, and some ideas to try to regain some of the calf health losses that have resulted during the chronic drain on operations.
Recurring issues with calf health last fall experienced around the U.S. Southwest can likely be chalked up to the lingering drought, suggests GPLC Ruminant Nutritionist Zeb Prawl. He believes the necessary switch to lower quality feedstuffs or mineral to try to get some financial relief has now come back to haunt producers in the form of calves with a weaker immune system. It’s difficult to know the extent of that, obviously, but the important point is to understand it’s likely a problem that’s been more than a year in the making, and chances are it will be a problem that will be hanging around into this fall, as well. “Because we aren’t typically measuring daily performance in a beef cow/calf herd and evaluating gains weekly, any changes in the nutrition program can create problems in performance that go undetected for weeks, even months.” Prawl writes.
It’s simply impossible to make up the extended period of low-quality protein, energy and micronutrients the drought has brought to producers by using supplementation bridges, he implies. The result: Producers have been rewarded with surviving the drought by being handed a bunch of newborn calves with compromised immune systems. Those calves may survive—even grow while on the cow during the summer—but the first real stress they face this fall may break that fragile immune system, according to Prawl. It’s not an easy reality to understand those calves most likely were set up to get sick as much as a year earlier, in the womb of drought-starved cows, but it’s important to be advised going forward.
For those operations that are getting some break from Mother Nature, “there are a hundred different ways” to feed those cows back toward optimal body condition, so don’t be afraid to break with tradition or too proud to look for a little professional help who understands the particulars of your area.
And for those who aren’t getting the break from the drought going into this spring, says Great Plains’ Nutritionist Jeremy Martin, health is going to be an important consideration in any plans to drylot calves and cows. He suggests:
- Try to semi-confine the calves, if you have any option at all. Allowing calves any escape from the dust and heat of the drylotted cows will benefit their health, especially if the calves have access to limited pasture.
- If that’s not possible, creeping calves with a feed designed for younger calves should take some pressure off the cows without sacrificing calf gain. They also need free-choice access to high quality roughage for rumen development.
- Call in the vet for suggestions to change vaccination protocols, particularly when you start looking at the logical decision to wean early.
- Make sure facilities are up to the job of handling small calves: Lower neck rails, check tank access for small calves, and make sure approaches are clean and graded to encourage approach to both.
- Look for opportunity to shade cows if they’re confined into breeding season. Reproductive performance will suffer if cows are extremely hot due to the reflective heat from the surface of the pen, Martin says.
- Since you have them confined, take the opportunity to invest in a synch program. Whether you’re going to AI or natural service, it should get you more pregnancies and will pay off in tighter calving seasons for years.