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Vet Advice: Seven steps to calving success

herd health management for calving

As fall turns to winter, it's time to lay the groundwork for a successful calving season. Here are seven tasks to do now to greatly influence your calving success, weaning rate and rebreeding rate next year.

1. Preg-check your cows. The most cost-effective measure you can do this fall is to be sure you’re only feeding pregnant cows through the winter months.

Imagine owning a business where you have 100 employees. What would you do if 10 of them never showed up for work all year long? Would you still pay them like the 90 workers who put in a full day every day?
Of course not; yet, this is exactly what you’re doing if you feed an open cow all winter long. She gets paid and you don’t.

2. Vaccinate for health. Are you on a herd health plan with your veterinarian? If so, this may be the time of year to vaccinate cows to help prevent reproductive diseases or neonatal calf disease.
Many herds vaccinate for the wrong diseases at the wrong times, or don’t vaccinate for diseases they could prevent. Don’t waste money. Ask your veterinarian which vaccinations are needed this fall.

3. Deworm all animals. There is controversy on the ideal time to deworm a beef cow. As the prices have decreased on all dewormers, we feel deworming cows after a hard freeze (less than 28° F) is a cost-effective procedure. Eliminating parasites as cows go into the most costly time of the year to feed them will nearly always pay dividends.

4. Body condition score. When your veterinarian palpates your cows for pregnancy, have him/her also body condition score (BCS) each cow. If cows are thin, it’s much easier to add weight earlier in the winter than later. A cow needs to be in BCS 5.5-6.0 at calving, and a heifer needs to be in BCS 6.5. The goal is to have them at ideal BCS at least 1-2 months precalving so you don’t have to play catch-up close to calving time.

One BCS is roughly 75-100 lbs., so if a cow is in BCS 4 on Nov. 1 and due to calve March 1 she needs to gain 150-200 lbs. in the next 2-3 months. (Get the full scoop on BCS and supplementation by going to, and writing "body condition score" into the "Search Titles" box on the opening page.)

Cows that need to add body condition likely can’t do so on hay alone. A cow’s energy requirement can be met much more easily and cheaply with grains or by-product feeds. By-products such as corn gluten, soybean hulls and brewer or distiller’s grains are some feedstuffs that can be used to add energy and/or protein to a cow's diet.

5. Separate heifers from cows. Separating bred heifers from adult cows during the winter feeding period through calving and pasture turnout will pay big dividends in calf health and heifer rebreeding rates.

Studies show first-calf heifers lack the breadth of immunity of adult cows. These heifers then pass on less maternal immunity to their calves. As a result, all calves in the herd are much more likely to get sick. First-calf heifers are also at a competitive disadvantage in feed consumption. A larger, more aggressive adult cow is always going to get more than her share of available feed.

6. Feed for reproduction. Many trials show an advantage to feeds that contain polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as whole soybeans or safflower seeds, 30 days precalving to enhance subsequent reproduction. For details on these programs, check with your Extension beef specialist or your herd health veterinarian.

7. Provide windbreaks, not barns. Cattle in areas that experience harsh winter weather need protection from the elements, most notably the wind.
Windbreaks can be made of wood, metal or stacked round bales of hay. Cows that have access to windbreaks consume up to 13% less feed than those with no protection.

In some herds, we see cows crowded into a barn or shelter during parts of the winter. We think we’re doing cows a favor by giving them shelter, but actually we're doing the opposite. The cows urinate and defecate in the barn and it becomes a mess. The cow’s hide becomes wet, requiring more energy for the cow to maintain body heat.

From a health standpoint, we now have a cow with manure on her legs, abdomen, udder and teats. When her calf is born, its first meal is not the life-giving colostrum we desire, but a mixture of mud and manure that covers the cow’s lower body. Lock your cows out of the barn before winter sets in so they acclimate to the cold. Instead, use the barn as a windbreak for the cows.

Beef production is similar to any other business. The more you plan ahead, the better the results will be.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical assistant professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. His columns regularly appear in BEEF magazine