Calving Management

@iowabeefcenter on Twitter Iowa Beef Center on Facebook  view IBC on Instagram Watch us on YouTube Growing Beef newsletter

link opens in new window/tab note: pdf files open in new window/tab

Post Calving Management

Once the calf is successfully born and taken care of, attention needs to be shifted to post-calving management. For heifers delivering their first calf or any female that has had a dystocia or been placed in a calving stall/barn, make sure the cow and calf bond properly. Mothering ability is not always automatic and the more changes from normal routine (heifers, dystocia, calving pens, etc.) the more likely that the cow will not accept the calf. Commercial products are available that sometimes helps a cow claim a calf. For aggressive cows sedation may help the cow calm down enough to focus on the calf. However, these should be considered short term fixes and future culling should be planned.

Once the cow and calf have bonded, the goal should be to limit exposure to disease pathogens, weather extremes and other mishaps. Either turning out to a pair pasture or rotating pregnant cows to new areas if using a Sandhill system should be done as soon as possible. Routine observation should be conducted to make sure the calf is not contracting diarrhea, pneumonia or some other disease and the cow is staying healthy, producing adequate milk, and raising calf properly.

Uterine Prolapse

Although uterine prolapses may occur with any calving, they are most typically associated with a difficult calving. During a normal calving, the uterus begins to contract down immediately after calving. This is further assisted by the release of the hormone oxytocin as the calf begins to nurse. Dystocia events can exhaust a cow physically and metabolically so that normal uterine contraction does not occur. A cow that stands immediately after calving will have some benefit of gravity to pull the uterus down into the abdomen. If she remains lying down (especially on a hill) the pressure from intestinal tract along with some continued contractions can prolapse the uterus. Additionally, since the calf may be delayed in nursing there is not the extra stimulus from oxytocin. A cow that calved unassisted may have still had enough difficulty to permit a prolapse to occur. With especially hard pulls, particularly if adequate lubrication was not used, the uterus may prolapse with the delivery of the calf.

Uterine prolapses are one of the few true bovine emergencies. Cows can die rapidly from a ruptured uterine artery, shock or other complications from a prolapse. Your veterinarian should be called immediately so that care can be provided as soon as possible. While you are waiting for your veterinarian care for the cow properly so she is better able to survive. The first thing to do is restrain the cow so she cannot run away or damage her uterus. Many cows that seem content to lie there for you will stand up and run off as soon as veterinarian arrives because the vet is a stranger to the cow. If the cow is close at the barn you can put her in a small pen with her calf. Make sure there are no nails, boards or other objects she could tear her uterus with. If she is out on pasture leave her there but restrain her so she can’t get up. If possible tie her head around to her back leg with a long cow halter. Another common option is to gently set the bucket of your tractor or loader over her back so she can’t rise. Don’t apply pressure, but the bucket will prevent her from standing. Many fractious cows will lie on the ground when the tractor that normally feeds them approaches.

If it is really cold and wet, provide some protection for the uterus. The cow can lose a lot of body heat through an exposed uterus. A piece of Styrofoam insulation will protect the uterus from sharp objects on the ground as well as conserve some heat. Cover the uterus with a piece of plastic or tarp to keep it clean and protected.

Cow Nutrition for Lactation

As should be expected, cow energy and protein requirements will be increased as she transitions to lactation. In addition to additional nutrients needed to meet lactation requirements, increased nutritional input is needed to promote uterine involution and resumption of cyclicity. However, unlike during late gestation where we are often trying to slowly increase BCS, the goal of nutrition during lactation is to maintain body weight and BCS. As cows are no longer carrying a calf, gut capacity is increased during lactation compared to late gestation, and in many instances energy density of the diet may not need to be significantly increased from gestation to lactation to meet daily needs for protein and energy.

Table 1 Beef cattle nutrition workbook

Nutrient requirements

Typically, beef cows follow a similar lactation curve to dairy cows in that peak lactation is noted at about 60 days postpartum. Thus, the first 2 months postpartum are critical from a nutritional perspective. It is imperative to have a good idea of your genetic base and whether your cows are lower or higher milk producing cows as this will dramatically impact nutrient requirements during this period.

Scours Prevention

Calf diarrhea, also known as scours, is the second leading cause of death in cow-calf herds after reproductive losses (late abortions, still births and dystocia). Scours prevention focus on two key areas, the health of the calf and cleanliness of the environment. Optimal calf health is achieved through proper care of the cow prior to calving and insuring adequate intake of colostrum at birth. In some scenarios, vaccination against scours is helpful.

The pathogens that cause neonatal diarrhea are transmitted by fecal oral contamination, i.e., calves are ingesting the pathogens from manure contamination. One of the easiest routes of transmission is from contaminated mud/manure on the cow’s udder that is ingested by the calf when it nurses. In this scenario, the calf can become infected with a scours pathogen before it consumes colostrum. The calf can also get exposed to pathogens immediately after birth as it is lying on the ground gasping for those first breaths of life if there is a lot of manure contamination in the calving area.

The calf scour pathogens are normally present at very low levels in the mature cows. However, as the calving season progresses the number of pathogens increases exponentially as young calves become exposed, infected and begin to shed large numbers of pathogens. This cycle is particularly evident when cows are calved in a single calving area. Generally, there are no problems with diarrhea early on but pathogen numbers slowly rise and can then explode to a major disease issue. Calves that are 7 to 14 days older then newborn calves can be a major source of pathogens. Rotational calving areas such as the Sandhills Calving system control calf diarrhea by limiting the buildup of pathogens in the environment where the most susceptible calves are.

More information on Calf Diarrhea

Sandhills Calving System

Managing the flow of cows and calves through the calving season can play a major role in controlling diarrhea. Typically, calves born early in the calving season do not have calf scour problems. After several waves of calves have been born then pathogen levels reach an infective threshold and calf scours can become a major problem. Separating groups of calves by age will not only decrease pathogen loads in general but protect the most susceptible new born calves from being exposed to pathogens shed by older calves.

A method to manage pathogen/disease exposure is to implement the Sandhills Calving System which incorporates use of multiple calving areas on pasture. Cows are calved in a calving area and after 7-10 days the pregnant cows are moved to a new area to calve and the pairs are left behind in the area that they calved in. The next group of cows calves in fresh clean environment for 7-10 days and then moves on. This management system prevents older calves that may be shedding higher levels of pathogens than cows (even though they may not have clinical diarrhea) from exposing young at risk calves. This system requires 6-8 calving areas and may not be practical to implement in smaller Midwestern farms.

Modified Sandhills System

A modified Sandhills system can be implemented that can help prevent calf scours outbreaks. A modified system should have three calving areas available. Calving areas can include calving barns, drylots and pastures. Movement of pregnant cows to the next calving area can either be timed or in response to disease. A set timed move should happen every 20-30 days. Although this does not protect every calf from exposure to disease, it often breaks the cycle enough that a scours problem can be managed instead of getting out of control. The other option is to use your primary calving area until calf diarrhea starts and then move your pregnant cows to a new calving area. With this management system you may be able to calve some years in the same place all season without problems. If problems with scours arise, you have planned options of where you will move your cows to protect the calves that are yet to be born.

Grant Dewell Renée Dewell Katy Lippolis

Associate Professor
Vet Diagnostic & Production Animal Med

Veterinary Specialist
Center for Food Security/Public Health