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Important aspects of calving discussed

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on Feb. 8, 2020

With calving season right around the corner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Beef Extension Educator Aaron Berger sat down with four individuals from the Great Plains Veterinary Education Center (GPVEC) in Clay Center, Neb. to discuss the most important aspects of calving during an episode of UNL’s BeefWatch podcast. 

Preparations during the last trimester

            Veterinary Epidemiologist Dr. Brian Vander Ley began the conversation by offering some tips to prepare cattle for calving in their last trimester. 

            “Almost everything bad that can happen during calving is tied to the body condition score (BCS) of cows during calving,” says Vander Ley. “In fact, a few studies have associated decreasing BCS with decreasing colostrum transfer to calves. Other studies show cows with a BCS of four or lower are two times more likely to experience dystocia than cows with a BCS of five and above.”

            He notes if cows are a few months out from calving, there is still time for producers to increase their ration and offer some supplementation to increase their BCS.

            “If producers have cows that are not in good shape and they are getting ready to calve in the next few weeks, they are going to have to prepare for a tougher calving season,” says Vander Ley. 

            “The most important thing they need to do is be very vigilant at calving to make sure calves get up and nurse,” adds Health Stewardship Veterinarian Dr. Halden Clark. “Producers will have to watch their cattle more closely.” 

 Parturition and intervention

            Vander Ley notes the first stage of labor usually goes unnoticed. 

“During the first stage they are restless and usually separate themselves from the herd,” Vander Ley says. “The second stage of parturition is when they are actively pushing, and the last stage is the delivery of the placenta.” 

            When it comes to intervention, Clinical Teaching and Extension Specialist Dr. Becky Funk tells her producers it is better to intervene earlier than later.

            “Sometimes this means calling a vet to ask them questions and it is always better to call them sooner rather than later,” Funk says. 

            “My advice is pretty simplified,” states UNL Extension’s Dr. Lindsay Waechter-Mead. “I always say if a producers doesn’t see any progression in a heifer during the first stage within 30 minutes and a cow within an hour, they probably need to check them. Positive progression is the most important thing.” 

            Clark reminds producers when deciding to intervene to watch for abnormalities.  

            “If there is anything abnormal like one foot or a head and no feet or if the feet and nose are altogether, it is definitely time to take a look,” he states. 

            Vander Ley says producers need to trust their gut instincts. 

            “I have had so many people tell me in breached calf situations, they just knew something wasn’t right,” Vander Ley notes. “Producers need to follow their gut feeling and follow up on it sooner rather than later.” 

Assisted calving

            According to Vander Ley, a good rule of thumb is if a producer can’t figure out what is wrong with a cow that is having trouble calving and solve it within 15 to 20 minutes, they should call a vet for help. 

            “Usually by the time I get the call from the producer, four different people have taken turns pulling on the calf and they have been going for longer than an hour,” he notes. “In those situations, the survival rate is less than 25 percent. Early veterinary intervention is much more rewarding.” 

            “I would also like to discuss escalating force,” chimes in Waechter-Mead. “Usually two guys pulling is the limit on the amount of force both the cow and calf can take.” 

            Clark notes the GPVEC has a device with the ability to measure how much force is applied to the chains during assisted calving. 

            “Depending on the gender, the average adult can apply 100 to 200 pounds of force on those chains,” he explains. “As soon as we put the jack on, we are close to applying a ton of force on those chains.”

            Clark continues, “One ton of force will cause severe nerve damage in the cow and skeletal damage, we’re talking broken bones, in the calf. That isn’t even close to the stronger mechanical interventions some producers use. Those are 100 percent off limits if we want the cow and calf to survive.” 

Post-calving tricks

            Generally calves born with assistance are less vigorous and eager to take their first breath, get up and suckle.

            The team at GPVEC provide some tips on how to deal with less vigorous calves.

            “There are a few things to remember about the physiology of a calf’s first breath,” notes Vander Ley. “When the calf is born, it has never had air in its lungs so they are kind of stuck together. Therefore, the first breath is going to be the most difficult one it ever takes.” 

            Vander Ley compares this to blowing up a balloon for the first time. He then goes on to explain hanging calves upside down or laying them on their side after bringing them into the world is only going to make the first breath harder as the intestines and guts will be pressed up against the lungs.

            To avoid this, Waechter-Mead encourages producers to set the calves upright with their back legs tucked underneath them. 

            “One thing producers can do is take a piece of straw, slip it up into the nostril of the calf and wiggle it around a few times,” says Clark. “That will often get them to breathe.” 

            Waechter-Mead adds, “The other trick I have found useful if I can’t get the calf to breath is through acupuncture. I take an 18-inch needle, poke it right into the nasal planum and give it a small twist.”

            Funk explains her method to stimulate breathing is rub the calf vigorously with a towel.

Calves and colostrum

            Getting calves up to suckle in the first few hours of life is important so they receive colostrum needed for immunity.

            Vander Ley points out it is important to understand the physiology of what happens when a calf first nurses.

            “When a calf starts nursing a cow there is a reflex that creates a straight shot from the esophagus to the small intestine. This is called the esophageal groove,” explains Vander Ley. “It takes the colostrum straight from the mouth to the intestine where it is going to be absorbed.”

            He notes if this doesn’t occur, the colostrum is deposited into the rumen of the newborn calf causing absorption to take longer.

            “There is also some data out there suggesting there is lower overall passive transfer when colostrum doesn’t bypass the rumen,” he adds.

            “A healthy vigorous calf that quickly stands up and nurses is the ideal situation,” states Vander Ley. “However, we all know there are a lot of things that can get in the way of this happening, so there needs to be a backup plan.” 

            In instances when calves need assistance receiving colostrum, Vander Ley points out it is more beneficial to make them suckle a nipple due to the esophageal groove concept.

            “However, never let perfect be the enemy of good,” he says. “If tubing is the best option for the situation, it is better to tube the calf and get them colostrum then to feed them nothing at all.” 

            Vander Ley also explains the differences between the two colostrum products – colostrum replacer and colostrum supplement. 

            “The best possible option is colostrum from the cow because it was built specifically to provide the best possible immunity for the calf in the particular environment,” Vander Ley says. “If for some reason we cannot milk the cow, looking into replacer and supplemental products is useful.” 

            Vander Ley explains colostrum replacer is typically made out of dry bovine colostrum whereas colostrum supplements are made of spray-dried bovine plasma.

            “Research has shown failure of passive transfer is much higher in calves that receive supplements versus replacer,” he notes. 

            Vander Ley states it is important to keep in mind a bag of colostrum replacer typically contains 50 to 60 grams of antibodies per bag while the recommended target for a newborn calf is 100 to 120 grams of antibodies. He also notes it is important to have these products on hand prior to calving season.  

            Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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