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Calving Advice: 8 Ways To Prevent Calf Diseases

how to prevent calf disease during calving

A healthy, productive calving season can give your cowherd a jumpstart for the whole year. And as ranchers, we know profitability depends on a healthy, thriving calf each year. However, preventing calf diseases during the often cold and muddy calving season is easier said then done.

Here are 8 things you should do every calving season to ensure success:

  • Calve in a clean, dry environment. “Clean” means a place where you didn't winter cows. Moisture can be a calf-killer, so calve on well-drained land.

  • The solution to pollution is dilution. Calves born outside on pasture where animals are “spread out” is ideal. Of course, ambient temperature is a factor, too, but being outside in weather conducive to calving remains best.

  • Keep the herd out of the barn. If cows and calves have access to a barn, it becomes a disease incubator. Letting calves into a well-bedded shelter during inclement weather is fine, but keep the cows out of the barn.

  • Ensuring calves get adequate colostrum is easy in a dairy situation, but with beef cows, we don't always know if the calves have nursed or how much. If you're unsure if a calf nursed (calf seems clueless, cow's udder is tight or the calf appears gaunt), milk out the cow and get 2-3 qts. of colostrum into those calves ASAP. It's critical that this is done within 12 hours of age.

    Now, to see if the calf does know how to nurse, pen the calf away from the cow but allow nose-to-nose contact. A short gate in the corner of a pen works best. In 6-8 hours, put the calf with its dam and see if he nurses. If he does, you're in good shape. If not, you'll have to tube the calf twice daily until he figures it out.

    If the calf is slow to learn to nurse, don't try to force him to suckle twice/day; you'll get frustrated and so will the calf. Instead, try about once every other day and see if the calf is getting any smarter. Be sure to castrate that beef calf; and, if you get many similar calves, send the sire to market and buy a bull that will increase vigor at birth. Increasing calf vigor at birth helps ensure adequate colostrum intake. Improving hybrid vigor with crossbreeding should help if this is a concern.
  • Keep cows separate from first-calf heifers. Because cows have been exposed to more pathogens than heifers, the calves from older cows should gain more immunity after nursing their colostrum. When calves are exposed to a disease agent, the calves from the heifers will likely get sick while the calves from cows may not. The bad news, though, is that once the sick calves contaminate the environment, even the healthy calves may get sick.

  • Don't pay good money for disease. Calving season isn't the time to introduce new animals into the herd. Don't buy new cows with calves and never buy a calf for a cow that lost hers. In fact, all new purchases should be quarantined from your herd for 30-60 days.

  • Vaccinate if necessary. Some calf diseases are diminished by using vaccine on the dam or on the calf itself. Check with your herd health veterinarian for recommendations for your geographic area.

  • Move the herd. When you were born, you were put into a clean crib; don't newborn calves deserve the same start? Learn how to adopt the Sandhills Calving System to your herd. Yes, this works best if you have sandy ground, but the concept of moving yet-to-calve cows to a new area works everywhere. Work with your herd-health veterinarian to see how it can be used on your farm or ranch. You can learn more about the Sandhills Calving System here.

Calving season is an exciting time of year. It's also much more pleasant when all the calves are born healthy and stay that way all the way to weaning time.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical associate professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.