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Management strategies ease calving season

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This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2006 Ag News and Views newsletter.

It's March, and most people are looking forward to spring. For cattlemen, spring means calving season is approaching. We turn our thoughts to the expectation of seeing the next calf crop safely on the ground. For some, this time of the year is just "another day at the office," because they have taken the necessary steps to ensure as few problems as possible. For others, I hope this article will help reduce some of the problems they might incur. The first four items on my top 10 list have to be done the previous year to ensure a successful calving season. As we strive to improve the beef operation over time, it's never too early to be thinking about the next calving season.

  1. Use light birth weight (BW) bulls with appropriate BW and calving ease expected progeny differences (EPDs) for replacement heifers. Yes, it's too late for this calving season, but the spring bull sales have begun, and now is the time to think about subsequent calf crops. Light BW bulls allow a first-calf heifer a better chance of calving unassisted.
  2. Have a defined and tight calving season. The shorter the calving season, the less labor you will have. Pull your cows into a 60- to 90-day calving season to reduce the amount of time you or your hired help are "on call." Additionally, this creates a more uniform calf crop to go to sale in the fall.
  3. Calve heifers out four weeks earlier than the cow herd. First, it allows for the heifers to have additional time to start cycling. This should get the heifers in sync with the mature cow herd so all females have a high possibility of rebreeding when the bulls are turned out. Furthermore, you are able to concentrate on the heifers calving without worrying about the cows.
  4. Make sure all females are in the correct body condition score (BCS). This is an often misunderstood and overlooked part of the management operation. Cows should be in a BCS of 5.5 to 6.5 at calving. This BCS ensures two things: the cows will have enough energy for the laborious task of parturition, and they are in the proper BCS for rebreeding. A thin cow sometimes won't have enough energy and will just give up during labor. Additionally, cows below a BCS of 5 at rebreeding exhibit lower conception rates. Reports have shown as much as a 25 percent or more breeding rate reduction for thin cows.
  5. Be prepared - OB chains, calf jack, fresh batteries in flashlights. It may seem obvious to some, but checking to make sure the calving equipment is where it is supposed to be is time well spent. While you're at it, make sure your flashlights have fresh batteries and the spotlight in the truck is still in working condition.
  6. Have a working area that is clean, well-lit and functional. Make sure the head gate on the squeeze chute is adjusted to fit cows and not calves. Having adequate light when you have to pull a calf is beneficial. Have clean, fresh hay available in the calving pen.
  7. Feed in the evening to reduce nighttime calving. Studies have shown a response to evening feeding and its effects on nighttime calving. In essence, feeding late in the day or early evening will reduce the number of calves born at night. This enables you to reduce overnight labor costs for your hired help and allows you to get some much-needed rest.
  8. Have nice, clean, dry pasture for calving. If you cannot easily see or get to the cows in a pasture, the likelihood of running into trouble increases. Have the cows close to handling/working facilities in case you have to assist a cow. The pasture, hopefully, has not been grazed for a while and has plenty of forage available. The standing forage helps keep the cows clean and increases the health of both the cow and calf.
  9. Know the signs. It is important to know proper presentation of the calf. The soles of the hooves should be pointing down. If they are in any other position, trouble could be ahead. Know when to say when! If the cow is worn out and lacking energy, she may need help. Keep your veterinarian's phone number programmed into your cellphone.
  10. Move cows and calves to a different pasture after calving. Moving the cows to a different pasture after calving simplifies the monitoring process since there are fewer cows to watch. This is a good time to pair the cows to the calves. Again, make sure to use a pasture that has plenty of standing forage available for the cows.

Robert Wells, Ph.D., PAS joined the Noble Research Institute as a livestock consultant in 2005. He also serves as the Executive Director for the Integrity Beef Alliance, LLC. His areas of emphasis are forage-based beef cattle production and cow/calf nutrition, herd health programs, improving herd genetics, beef quality assurance, and value-added calf marketing programs. Wells grew up on a South Texas diversified farm and attained his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. You can follow him on LinkedIn.