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Veterinary epidemiologist specialist discusses calving season preparation considerations

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) BeefWatch podcast welcomed Dr. Brian Vander Ley, a Nebraska Extension veterinary epidemiologist, on Feb. 1 to discuss an article titled “Preparing for calving season” in the February UNL BeefWatch newsletter. 

Key considerations 

Vander Ley notes the window of calving for producers across the U.S. is relatively wide. Many producers may already be calving, so preparation in this case may look differently. But, regardless of when producers start calving, it is important their cows go into the season with adequate nutrition to make good colostrum. 

“They need to have good body condition scores,” he says. “We want cows to successfully deliver a calf without complications, and then we want the calf to drink colostrum.” 

He adds one of the most critical events in any animal’s life, especially cattle, is the ingestion of colostrum. 

“Once a calf is born, we want the colostrum meal to happen quickly, and we want it to be an uninterrupted, streamlined event to pack the calf full of protective antibodies,” he says. “A lot of things I think about in terms of prevention and management at calving time centers around making sure these events go smoothly.” 

The article notes several other calving season preparation considerations. 

These include paying attention to nutritional needs of bred heifers or cows prior to calving, reviewing a herd health plan with a veterinarian, examining calving facilities and making sure they are in good working order and checking calving supplies and reviewing stages of parturition to understand when assistance is needed.

Additionally the article encourages producers to have colostrum or colostrum replacement products on hand, have a plan and equipment for warming calves when calving during cold weather and have a plan to provide wind protection along with a clean, dry environment. 

Planning for complications 

“Calves who have a difficult birth or experience hypothermia are at a much higher risk for not being able to consume important colostrum,” says Vander Ley. 

He notes identifying calves at risk is important. A quick test producers can do to figure out whether or not intervention is necessary is to stick a couple of fingers in a calf’s mouth to test their sucking reflex. 

“With a normal calf, when we stick a couple of fingers in their mouth, they should suck pretty vigorously a few times. It’s a built-in reflex. They are not actively thinking about it and should just be able to do it – it’s how they are made. But, if they don’t, it’s usually a good indication there are some problems impairing their ability to nurse and absorb colostrum,” he explains. 

In these situations, the best solution is to milk the cow and feed the colostrum to the calf by hand. If a producer is unable to milk a cow, Vander Ley explains using a high-quality colostrum replacement product is an option.  

He advises producers to avoid using frozen colostrum from another source, because it’s a way to transmit disease. 

Esophageal feeders or oral gastric tubes can be an effective way to get colostrum into a calf, but the best way, according to Vander Ley, is to use a bottle and nipple. 

“The best way to deliver colostrum would be nursing from the dam, the second best would be from a bottle and the third best would delivering it via some kind of tube,” he shares. 

He adds if calves are unable to nurse, esophageal feeders or oral gastric tubes would be better than not delivering it at all. 

colostrum products

Vander Ley shares there are two big categories of colostrum products. They include colostrum supplements and colostrum replacers. 

“Colostrum supplements tend to be a small dose of antibodies, and the source tends to be different,” he says. “Whereas high-quality colostrum replacement products have dried colostrum from a cow.” 

He notes cows only make colostrum for a short period of time, so colostrum replacement products are typically more expensive. However, this is the ideal product to use. 

Additionally, Vander Ley advises producers to pay attention to product labels as each product has dosage recommendations and mixing temperature directions. 

A fresh crop of calves is something cow/calf producers look forward to. Having a plan and preparing ahead of time for the calving season can help to minimize calf loss and reduce stress.

“One of my best pieces of advice is to assess and make a plan,” concludes Vander Ley. “If the plan is not executable quickly, then quickly make a new plan and move on.” 

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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