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Calving Checklist: Everything You Need To Know & Have Before Calving

Being ready and prepared before the start of calving season can make life much easier for operators, and potentially save a calf.

Heather Smith Thomas

November 27, 2013

9 Min Read
Calving Checklist: Everything You Need To Know & Have Before Calving

It’s a century-old motto for millions of Boy and Girl Scouts, but “be prepared” is a cardinal rule for calving time as well.

At calving, you want everything on hand that might be needed, and all facilities and equipment functional and ready for use, says W. Mark Hilton, DVM, who’s also a Purdue University professor of beef production medicine.

If you have short breeding and calving seasons, it’s probably been at least 10 months since last year’s calving, and your focus has been on other tasks. But some calves can arrive early, and that’s no time to be searching for that box of obstetrical (OB) gloves you bought last year, or scrambling to move machinery you stored in the calving barn last fall. Act early to make sure you have what you need and that it’s in good working order.

A checklist for the cow

Among the important things to have easily accessible, Hilton says, are OB chains and any medications you might need.

“Keep oxytocin and epinephrine on hand. If you’re dealing with a malpresentation — the calf’s head or foot is back, or it’s breech — and you think you can fix it, giving the cow 10cc of epinephrine in the neck will relax her uterus, allowing you to push the calf back in for straightening,” he says. He advises checking with your veterinarian about epinephrine and its proper use.

Robert Callan, associate professor at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science, says disinfectant for cleaning up a cow before you check her or assist with a birth is a must, as well as for dipping the newborn’s navel. He says Povidone iodine (Betadine®) or chlorhexadine (Nolvasan®) both work, though the latter is more expensive.

Callan prefers using both the Betadine scrub and solution. The scrub contains a detergent and can be used to clean the cow’s perineal area; apply with a squirt bottle.

“The disinfectant solution is something you’d use diluted with water as a rinse,” he says. Have a bucket for wash water (water mixed with disinfectant solution), a scoop for pouring water/disinfectant over the back end of the cow to clean her up, or squeeze bottles (like empty dish soap bottles) for squirting warm water/disinfectant solution onto the cow.

“Roll cotton works well for scrubbing and cleaning. It holds a lot of fluid and works better than paper towels or rags,” Callan says.

In assisting a dystocia, good lubricant is a must. Callan explains there are two kinds. One is carboxy methylcellulose, an OB lube that comes in a 1-gal. container and costs about $15. He says it works best if a half-gallon of hot water is added to the gallon of lube.

“You can use a stomach pump and stomach tube to put it directly into the vaginal canal and uterus. Diluting the carboxy methylcellulose with hot water makes it easier to pump in, and warms it to body temperature,” Callan says.

The other type of lube (polyethylene polymer), J-Lube, is inexpensive, comes as a powder, and is convenient — you just add warm water. “One of the lesser-known things about J-Lube is that it can be fatal if it gets into the cow’s abdomen. If there’s any chance the cow will need a C-section, don’t use J-Lube,” Callan says.

A checklist for the calf

Disinfectant for a calf’s navel stump is very important, Hilton stresses, particularly if calving indoors. “Herds that calve or are housed inside a barn are more at risk for many problems, including respiratory disease, navel ill and scours in baby calves,” Hilton says.

But don’t assume you won’t have problems just because you calve on grass. In addition, some operators with traditionally easy-calving cows can become complacent. That can lead to not being prepared for an emergency.

So make sure you have everything necessary for newborns — elastrator rings if you band bull calves at birth; injectibles like vitamins A, D and E, selenium and vaccines; and ear tags for calf identification, etc. Ear tags may be simply nylon/plastic write-on tags for in-herd ID, or you may want official USDA 840 AIN (Animal Identification Number) tags, which make it easier if calves need a health certificate for interstate transport or other regulatory functions later in life, Callan says.

Here is another point where the “be prepared” motto comes in handy. If you don’t have tags purchased and ready, calves may be a lot harder to catch and tag when they are several days old, he adds.

Callan recommends giving newborn calves vitamins A, D and E, particularly if their mothers were on dry forage before calving, or if pasture quality is poor due to drought.

“Have it ready, and don’t use last year’s bottle that’s been sitting there with dust on the top, and already had multiple needles going into it. Product contaminated with bacteria can result in injection-site infections. In addition, vitamin E preparations have short expiration dates. Injectable vitamins are inexpensive, and it’s best to start with new bottles each calving season,” he says. 

Callan advises having colostrum replacer or frozen colostrum from last year, or planning to obtain colostrum to freeze from early-calving cows. “If you buy a colostrum product, make sure it’s a replacer, not a supplement,” he says, stressing the wide variety in quality.

A colostrum product should have a minimum of 100g of Immunoglobulin G (IgG), an antibody isotype, in each dose. “Ask your veterinarian what to buy,” Hilton says. “There’s huge variation in quality and effectiveness. Make sure you have something with research data behind it.”

Callan says frozen colostrum from one of your own cows is superior to any commercial product. To freeze colostrum, he advises using 1-gal. Ziploc® bags. Collect 1-2 quarts of colostrum from a mature cow after her calf has nursed. It’s best to collect this within six hours of birth.

“Place 1 quart of colostrum in the gallon bag to freeze. This size of bag works better than a smaller one because it has greater surface area when frozen flat, and can be thawed quickly in warm water,” he says.

Plan disease-control program

If you plan to collect and test ear notches on calves for bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) virus, Callan advises doing it at tagging. The ear notches can be stored in separate tubes in the refrigerator or freezer, and then passed on to your veterinarian for BVD testing, Callan says.

Depending on the situation and herd health program, newborn calves might receive clostridial vaccines like perfringens type C and D, or an oral E. coli vaccine. He advises working with your herd health veterinarian to determine if cows should be vaccinated precalving, or the calves vaccinated at birth.

A few packages of electrolytes are also handy in the event of scouring. Your veterinarian can recommend the best products, as quality varies. But if you’re caught shorthanded, Callan says a homemade batch consisting of ½ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. “lite” salt, and ¼ tsp. baking soda can be dissolved in 2 quarts of warm water.

And finally, in case of emergencies, have your veterinarian’s phone number memorized, posted on the wall, or in your cellphone.

Calving facilities and equipment

Prior to calving season, do a walk-through of your calving setup. This includes the calving barn, pens for assisting problem births and potential shelter during inclement weather.

“Make sure you have proper restraint — a head catch or place to tie a cow, a halter and rope — and good lighting,” Callan says. You don’t want to have to depend on flashlights in the middle of the night.

He says it’s also wise to pressure-wash or steam-clean every hard surface in calving facilities; and strip out the base of barns or stalls, and throw in some new dirt or lime. Have fresh bedding on hand in a convenient location, too, Callan says. 

“Make sure your calf chains or straps are clean and handy. The calf puller should be cleaned up, and within easy reach in the barn/calving stall. Be sure to check for rust or damage, and address any problem before you need it. A halter and rope can also be useful. A long, soft cotton rope for casting a cow for easier delivery (after correcting a malpresentation) is good to have on hand,” he says.

A calf or lamb nipple and bottle are handy if you need to feed colostrum. A nasogastric tube and funnel, or an esophageal probe feeder should also be part of your equipment.

“Check the tubes you used last year and replace old, stiff or dirty ones. An old tube can crack if the plastic goes bad over summer. You don’t want to discover you need a new one in the middle of the night,” Callan says.

It’s all about being prepared, he says. It can make life much easier and potentially save a calf.

Pasture management for pairs

Another important planning aspect for calving is where you’ll put calving cows and cow-calf pairs. Robert Callan, associate professor at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science, says the Sandhills Calving System is a proven system for decreasing scours and other infectious diseases.

“This system takes advantage of multiple calving areas to reduce buildup and transmission of pathogens from older calves to younger calves. One pasture area is used for calving at the start of calving season. After that, the animals that have not yet calved are moved to a new pasture every 1-2 weeks, depending on herd size and pasture availability. The cow-calf pairs already on the ground stay in the pasture they calved in,” Callan explains.

“If you don’t have a multiple-pasture setup, you might put up temporary electric fencing to divide pastures so it will work when the cows start calving. But don’t wait until the ground freezes if you plan to build some new fences,” he says.

Things to have on hand

  • Halter and rope

  • Disposable long-sleeve obstetrical (OB) gloves

  • OB lubricant in a squeeze bottle

  • Plastic bucket for wash water and/or plastic squeeze bottles for wash water

  • Rags or roll cotton for washing the cow

  • Clean OB chains/straps and handles

  • Calf-puller

  • Oxytocin and epinephrine

  • Suction bulb for suctioning fluid from the nostrils of a calf that’s not breathing

  • Iodine or chlorhexadine for disinfecting navel stumps

  • Flashlight (with batteries that work!)

  • Injectable antibiotics for cows/calves, prescribed by your vet

  • Sterile syringes and needles

  • Bottle and lamb nipple for feeding a calf

  • Stomach tube (nasogastric tube) or esophageal feeder

  • Frozen colostrum or packages of commercial colostrum replacer

  • Electrolytes

  • Toolbox to hold/carry needed items in one handy place

Heather Smith Thomas is a Salmon, ID, rancher and freelance writer.


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