Calving Management

General Preparation for Calving


In the beef industry, calving management is critical to production and profitability of the cow herd. USDA NAHMS data reports that approximately 12% of heifers and 4% of mature cows experience dystocia or a difficult delivery at calving. Calves born from a dystocia event are 3 to 25 times more likely to die at birth and have a 1 ½ times greater likelihood to experience a morbidity event prior to weaning. Proper care prior to and at calving can not only help reduce incidence of dystocia, but can also minimize deleterious impacts in the event that dystocia occurs. This manual provides beef producers with practical guidance to prepare and manage their herd when calving.

General Preparation for Calving

It is important that you and the cow herd are ready for calving well in advance of the first due date. This preparation can influence the health of your newborn calves and help insure a successful calving season.

Proper pre-calving nutrition is critical to facilitate an uneventful labor, ease the transition into lactation, and hasten the resumption of normal estrus cycles to maintain a yearly calving interval. Additionally, adequate nutrition is important throughout gestation but the last trimester is vital for a healthy vigorous calf at birth. Research has shown that calves born to dams that received less than adequate nutrition have altered growth patterns and carcass composition, and impaired reproductive performance as yearlings. This concept, called fetal programming, has enlightened people to the importance of pre-calving nutrition on the lifetime performance of calves. Besides growth, carcass composition and reproductive performance, other body systems such as neonatal and post-weaning immunity may also be impacted by pre-calving nutrition. It should be noted that fetal programming reaches beyond the protein and energy balance of cows during gestation, as gestational vitamin and mineral status also play a role in development of the fetus and postnatal performance. Thus it is imperative to meet all nutritional requirements of cows to optimize performance of the herd.

In addition to feeding cows adequately to meet their nutritional requirements it is a good idea to monitor body condition of cows throughout gestation. Body condition is an effective tool to monitor nutritional status. Cows with a low Body Condition Score (BCS) below 5 on a 1-9 scale should be supplemented with additional feed to meet their nutritional requirements. Young or timid cows may not be able to compete for feed from older or dominant cows. Cows should calve at a minimum of a BCS of 5 and heifers should calve at a BCS of 6. Besides being important for calf development, a low BCS also has been shown to result in decreased quantity and quality of colostrum. Alternatively, cows with high BCS (7+) may experience increased calving difficulty. Therefore, consider separating cows by body condition and/or age if experiencing low BCS in those cows to ensure they are consuming necessary feed while not overfeeding fat cows.

If possible, sort your cows into groups based on expected calving dates. Pregnancy diagnosis in early gestation (less than 3 months in gestation) either by ultrasound or palpation can allow you to calculate the expected calving dates in bull-bred females. Sorting females into 2 or 3 groups allows you to focus your attention on those cows that may be calving soon and not have to closely observe the whole herd. Additionally, if at all possible, heifers should be sorted into a separate group. These young females are more likely to need assistance during calving and require more observation (as well as greater diet nutrient density) than older cows. Sorting cows can also increase efficacy of scours vaccines. Scours vaccines generally deliver the best results when given between 4 and 10 weeks prior to calving. Therefore, cows calving at the end of the calving season whose calves are always more at risk for scours will not be provided as much protection if they were vaccinated at the same time as the rest of the herd.

Finally, prepare your calving facilities for the upcoming activity. Outdoor lots should be scraped clean, adequate shelter should be available in case of inclement weather and sufficient bedding should be close at hand. Indoor facilities should be cleaned out completely and allowed to dry if possible. Make sure all lights are working properly and that the headgate is lubed and working properly. Check your calving supplies and make sure you have everything on hand you need.

Grant Dewell Renée Dewell Katy Lippolis

Associate Professor
Vet Diagnostic & Production Animal Med

Veterinary Specialist
Center for Food Security/Public Health