Monday, March 2, 2015

Vet 101 Radio Show: It's Calving Time

Calving season is one of the most challenging and enjoyable times of the year to be a beef producer.  Cold, long hours and lack of sleep sometimes make it difficult to remember and focus on some simple things that are critical to success. As with anything that has such a huge impact on your future, it is a good idea to set some goals. For most people the primary goals during calving season are to get as many live and healthy calves as possible and to keep the cows in good shape so they will breed back.

This month's Vet 101 Radio show originally aired on 1010 KSIR (Fort Morgan, CO) on February 10th. Dr. Paul Chard and Dr. Jolynn Sakugawa join KSIR Farm Director, Lorrie Boyer, to discuss calving time topics including precalving preparations, calving difficulties, colostrum and newborn calf care.

Watch video for the full recorded show with notes


Preparation for calving should start 90 days before the first calf hits the ground and is essential for optimal production and performance through the calving period. Pre-calving vaccines should be given 45 to 90 days prior to calving; this timing is critical to utilizing the vaccination by putting antibodies in their colostrum. During this time it is important to monitor body condition score (BCS) of the cows, which is scored on a scale of 1 to 9. A cow with a BCS of 1 is an extremely thin cow on the verge of death and 9 would be the fattest cow you can imagine. The ideal BCS for cows at the time calving is 5 to 6. Cows that are too thin will have a weak calves, poor colostrum, and will have trouble breeding back. Cows that are too fat, will have calving problems with too much fat in the birth canal, decreased milk production will have trouble breeding back. Basically, think of the BCS as a Goldilocks scenario; in the middle is just right. To preserve this body score it is important to remember that cows require more calories when it is wet and cold out; those big spring storms are hard on cows. Also lactation is a huge energy drain and nutrition should be adjusted accordingly. It is also important to consider trace minerals and environment during this time.  If you would like to learn more here is a great resource for Body Condition Scoring Your Beef Cow Herd.


The time has come for the miracle of birth.  It is important to know the basics of the normal calving process so that appropriate assistance can be provided in a timely manner. There are three stages of labor to complete the calving process.
  • During Stage 1 the cow/heifer is restless; she will get up and down a lot and isolate herself from the herd. This stage can last 2 to 12 hours.  Once she starts straining she should not stop for very long. If she does, there could be a problem.  Also, if she starts and there is no progress within eight hours, she should be examined.
  • Stage 2 starts when the water sac appears and ends when the calf is born. This stage can last anywhere from 2 to 4 hours in cows and 3 to 6 hours in heifers. The cow/heifer should be closely monitored during this stage. A general guideline of roughly 30 minute intervals can be applied during this time. Basically, you should see progress about every 30 minutes. After the start of heavy labor you should see a water bag in 30 to 45 minutes, the next 30 minutes the feet should be within the water bag, the next 30 the nose should appear, and finally 30 minutes after that the calf should be on the ground.
  • Stage 3 is expulsion of the fetal membranes and involution of the uterus. This should occur within 12 hours.

When Do I Need to Help Her?

There are many things that can go wrong with the calving process requiring further attention and examination. Common problems include an oversized calf, undersized heifer, and malposition of the calf.  Here are a few guidelines to follow to determine whether to intervene:
  • Stage 1 of labor lasts longer that 8 hours
  • Cow starts straining, but quits for more that a few minutes
  • Water sac is broken or fetal membranes are hanging out without a calf showing at all
  • Progression does not occur about every 30 minutes during Stage 2
  • Only one foot is showing
  • Head is showing with no feet
  • Tongue or nose is swollen
  • Bottom of the feet are facing toward the sky (calf is backwards)
  • Feet come out and disappear completely again
  • Cow is too relaxed (may mean that the calf is dead)

When Should I Call the Vet? 

If you are assisting the cow with calving and have not made any progress within 15 minutes, stop and call the vet.  If you are pulling the calf with a force greater that two men with can exert by hand, stop and call the vet.  Calf pullers can easily generate a pulling force great enough to injure the calf or cow, so use them wisely.

Essentials For a Healthy Start to Life

Immediately after the calf is born there are a three basic things needed for a good start to weaning a healthy calf: oxygen, colostrum and warmth.
  • Oxygen is essential for not only the obvious reason but it is needed to break down brown fat. Brown fat is the energy reserve a calf is born with to create body heat. Oxygen is often depleted when the calf has trouble during stage two of labor. Signs of trouble include a swollen head or nose, seeing a head with no feed, only one foot showing, bottom of the feet are towards the sky, only a tail with no feet, feet come out and then disappear again, and having a relaxed cow. If any of these are seen it is important to help her with labor. During this time it is also important to have a watch handy and keep this rule in mind. If you are unable to make any progress in 15 minutes you need to call for help.
  • Colostrum is “the good stuff” that provides the calf with essential nutrients, immunity and miraculous substances required for survival. The calf needs this as soon as possible after birth. The calf's gut will only be able to properly absorb colostrum for the first 6-12 hours of life. Colostrum is the foundation for a healthy and productive life. Colostrum quality can be enhanced through good pre-calving nutrition and vaccination.  There are commercially available colostrum replacers and supplements available to use if needed.  Colostrum replacers should be used if the cow/heifer is unable to provide colostrum. Colostrum supplements should be used if some of the cow/heifer's colostrum was given, but the quantity or quality is in question (such as with some heifers or with twins).
  • Warmth may be the simplest and most obvious thing to provide a wet newborn calf, but it can't be overemphasized. On those cold nights be sure to dry them off quickly and massage them vigorously to help stimulate them to move and react. It is a good idea to keep calf warmers, boxes or the pickup floorboard readily available. Other options include calf blankets and ear muffs. The best way to monitor body temperature to use a digital thermometer.  If the rectal temperature drops below 101°F warm colostrum should be given and a calf warmer should be used.

Don't Hang Those Baby Calves Upside Down

Once a very common practice, hanging baby calves upside down does more harm than good.  Although fluid does drain out of the mouth and nose when you hang a newborn calf upside down, it is not coming out of their lungs or airways.  This fluid is actually coming out of their stomach.  Hanging the calf upside down makes if extremely difficult for the calf to breath with the weight of all of the abdominal contents pressing on the diaphragm and lungs. The best thing to do is place the calf in a dog-sitting position, up on its sternum with all legs underneath it immediately after delivery. This position allows the lungs to expand allowing the calf to receive the most oxygen. Then use a piece of straw to stimulate them to cough and breath by placing straw up their nose repeatedly.  Calf respirators are readily available and work well to ensure clear airways and properly inflated lungs. Finally, supplemental oxygen should be provided especially at altitudes above 3000 ft.  

Although calving time stressful it is a necessary part of the beef production cycle and gives us the wonderful opportunity to witness a pasture full of baby calves running and jumping around as their mom’s graze of that fresh spring grass.

Happy Calving from Dr. Jolynn and Dr. Paul