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Healthy beef calf programs (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2011

Health management can be a critical component in adding value to calves. Whether calves are sold at weaning, after pre-conditioning or backgrounding or retaining ownership through the feeding phase a health management program is important. The biggest increase in value for the beef cattle operation is having more calves alive at the end of the production phase.

There have been several studies in the last ten years that have shown the benefits of good colostral immunity not only improves the health of neo-natal calves but can have impacts all the way through the feeding period. Sufficient pre-partum nutrition is important for calves to achieve adequate passive transfer of immunoglobins after birth. In order for cows to produce quality colostrum they need sufficient protein and energy during the last 30 days of gestation when colostrum is beginning to be made. Additionally, sufficient nutrition pre-partum is important for the calf also. Proper energy and protein levels are vital for calf vigor after calving. Calves from energy or protein restricted dams during gestation have decreased calf vigor and ability to generate body heat. Weak calves will be less likely to intake adequate amounts of colostrum and are more prone to increased morbidity and mortality. Ideally, cows should calve at a BCS of 5 (heifers at BCS 6). Up to 80% of fetal growth occurs in the last 50 days of gestation. Females during this period of gestation need approximately 11 Mcal of energy and 1.7 lbs of crude protein per day.

Once the cows have sufficient nutrition to get them through calving the next priority is getting a live calf on the ground. Dystocia increases the risk of neonatal calf death by 4 times. Proper observation of females during the calving season can identify dystocia to allow for timely intervention. Ideally, females should be observed every two hours. A recent USDA NAHMS report (http://nahms.aphis.usda.gov/beefcowcalf/index.htm) reported that only 50% of producers observe females more than twice a day and less than 15% observe more than 4 times a day. With proper observation females with dystocia problems can be indentified in time to increase the likelihood of obtaining a live calf. Having your clients know the stages of labor and identifying when a female is in each stage can help indicate when assistance is needed. Stage 1 of labor begins with the initial contraction of the uterus and ends with the dilation of the cervix. Stage 1 labor usually only last 2 to 6 hours. Failure of a female to move out stage 1 labor indicates that the calf may not be positioned properly to cause proper dilation of the cervix. Assistance should be given if stage 1 lasts more than 8 hours. During stage 1 cows will usually be restless and seek isolation for a place to calve. Stage 2 of labor begins when the cervix is dilated and the calf has entered the birth canal and ends with the expulsion of the calf. Stage 2 is characterized by abdominal contractions, the water bag and calf will usually be visible. Dystocia during this time frame can be critical as the cow will quickly become tired and the calf can be traumatized due to repetitive contractions and potentially excessive pulling. Assistance should be given during stage 2 if the water bag has been visible for 2 hours and cow is not pushing, cow has been in active labor for 30-60 minutes without progress, cow is tired or calf appears stressed or if an abnormal presentation is identified. To increase the chance of a live calf, clients should seek veterinary assistance if they do not understand what they are feeling or have been pulling for 30 minutes without progress. When pulling calves do not use more than 500 pounds of force (equivalent of 2 strong men) to decrease trauma to calf.

Once a calf is born alive they must intake colostrum for an adequate immune function. Dystocia calves should be administered colostrum via a bottle or esophageal tube instead of relying on them standing and nursing. Beef calves that do not have adequate colostrum intake and absorption may be 9 times as likely to become ill in the preweaning period than calves that had received and absorbed enough colostrum. As usual, protect newborn calves from extreme environmental conditions when necessary.