March Madness: Preparing for calving season
By Warren Rusche
South Dakota State University Extension
We're entering two of my favorite times of year right now: basketball playoffs and calving season. They both represent the endpoint of a lot of time, energy, and resources. The goal of a basketball team is to make a deep run in the playoffs and the goal of a rancher is to save as many calves as possible. One of the key components for success in both fields is preparation. And for a rancher, success during calving is critical. Over 60 percent of calves that die before weaning are either born dead or are lost within the first 24 hours after birth, according to USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System data, with calving difficulty being a significant cause of death.
Being well prepared for the start of calving season can make a tremendous difference in successfully getting live calves on the ground. A list of suggested supplies for calving season can be found in the iGrow article List of Supplies and Equipment for Calving Time Back by SDSU Extension Veterinarian Russ Daly. It's a lot easier to get all the necessary supplies ready and in place ahead of time rather than scrambling in the dark when the first heifer needs some help. Gestation tables and accurate breeding and turn-out dates are valuable in predicting when the first calves can be expected, but some cows don't read the book. It's not at all uncommon for genetic lines that have been selected for easier calving and lower birth weights to show a tendency for shorter gestation as well. In those cases it would be prudent to be ready a week to ten days earlier than what the gestation table would suggest.
Know your role
Another key component is making sure that everyone on the team knows the game plan and their role. Going over the plan for calving season with the entire team is a good idea to make sure that everyone is on the same page, even if the plan hasn't changed and even if the team is only one person. Factors such as when to provide assistance and knowing when to call your veterinarian can impact not only this year's production, but future calf crops as well. USDA research from Montana has shown that heifers that were assisted later during labor had a 19 percent reduced pregnancy rate compared to heifers that were helped within a half hour.
Thinking about the actual procedures of delivering calves can also be useful, even if a producer has years and years of experience. Space doesn't permit discussing every potential presentation here, but a good place to start would be SDSU Extension Veterinarian Russ Daly's Assisting Difficult Calvings article, available on iGrow Beef. There he discusses some general recommendations for providing assistance during a difficult birth.
Some of his suggestions include:
Take a short pause after the chest of the calf is delivered before pulling again. This mimics what happens in a normal delivery. When the calf takes its first breath it begins to transition away from oxygen from the umbilical cord to oxygen from the air.
A slight rotation (45 degrees) often allows the hips to pass more easily.
Use a piece of straw or vigorous rubbing to encourage the calf to breathe. One might think that picking up the calf with his head down would help get fluid out of his breathing passages, but actually that creates increased pressure on the lungs making it more difficult to breathe.
Call for assistance if one can't determine how to correct the problem or if 30 minutes of assistance have gone by without significant progress.