Are you prepared for calving season? Don’t wait, now is the time to prepare your beef cattle for calving

Published on Thu, 11/09/2023 - 3:22pm

Are you Prepared for Calving Season?
Don’t Wait, Now is the Time to Prepare your Beef Cattle for Calving.

 Article and photos courtesy of Elanco Animal Health.

 Preparing for the calving season is a critical aspect of beef cattle management. Brett Terhaar, DVM, beef technical consultant for Elanco Animal Health, says you can never prepare too much or too early for calving.

“With cattle prices and beef demand at all-time highs, now, more than ever is the time to focus on supporting your dams throughout pregnancy to ensure the arrival of strong and healthy calves,” he says. “Locally, we’re seeing 500- to 600-pound calves selling around $3.00 per pound. That is money you do not want to leave on the table.”

The final trimester, or 60 to 90 days before calving, is our opportunity to set the cow and the calf up for success. For the calf, those final 60 days are when approximately 65%-80% of fetal growth occurs,1 making it a critical time to provide support to your cows to ensure proper growth and development.

For the cow, ensuring a proper body condition (BCS) score 90 days prior to calving is critical for both calving and rebreeding. “If a cow lacks condition, it may not have the energy reserves needed to calve. On the other hand, too much condition may lead to calving difficulties due to too much fat deposit along the birth canal. An ideal body condition score is 6-6.5 for first calf heifers and 5.5-6 for cows,” says Terhaar.

Terhaar stressed the importance of evaluating BCS at the 90-day pre-calving mark to make adjustments and find ways to add weight if needed. “Moving one BCS is about 80 pounds, so you need time to make some movement, and moving the BCS post-calving is almost impossible,” he says. “When you’re spending upward of $3,000 on a heifer and she’s too thin, that’s where some big money can be lost because chances are she is not going to be able to breed back.”

The health of your calves is determined long before the calf is born. Good animal husbandry, nutrition and vaccination management all have a significant impact on the calf’s development and growth in utero and the quality of colostrum that will be available to it when it is born.

Proper nutrition is key
As the cow nears calving, ensure she is comfortable and has easy access to adequate nutrition and clean, fresh water to help her maintain body condition and aid in calf development. Solid nutrition during the pre-calving period can influence delivery, calf survivability and calf health at birth. Feeding micronutrients like copper, selenium, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin E to the cow in late gestation can support calf health and immunity in the early stages of its life.

Inadequate nutrition can result in weak labor, increased calving difficulties, poor colostrum quality and quantity, impaired milk production, reduced calf vigor at birth, and ultimately, weaning weights.

Prioritize high-quality colostrum production
When it comes to colostrum quantity and quality, cow nutrition and vaccination management have a significant impact. Vaccination is a valuable tool to help boost levels of immunoglobulin G (IgG) in colostrum to specific disease-causing organisms. High levels of the IgG antibody in the colostrum are important because all calves are born with a naïve immune system and their initial immunity depends on the colostrum they consume.  

Vaccination programs build cow and calf immunity
Vaccinating during pregnancy can be a useful management tool for two reasons. First, to increase antibody levels in the cow to improve her own immunity and second, to promote the development of essential antibodies that will be transferred into her colostrum.

To be effective, vaccination timing is key. Antibody production does not start immediately when a vaccine is given to the cow, the cow’s body must first recognize the antigen and then signal the cells that aid in the immune response to start producing antibodies. This process can take up to a week to start and an additional two to three weeks to see considerable antibody production.

Beginning four to six weeks before calving and continuing up to a day or two ahead of calving, antibodies from the cow’s bloodstream are actively transferred into the mammary gland as part of colostrum formation. To maximize the number of antibodies transferred, you must stimulate the immune system early enough so there is plenty of time for it to respond to vaccination and produce the desired antibodies. This means for cattle not previously vaccinated, the first dose of a scours vaccine, for example, should be given at least eight to nine weeks ahead of calving, with a booster around four weeks pre-calving. After the initial prime and boost sequence, you’d ideally give an annual booster in the eight to 10 weeks pre-calving window.

“When planning to administer vaccines, aligning timing when cows will already be going through the chute, such as preg checks or lice treatments, can help to minimize multiple handlings that could lead to preterm labor or calving difficulties induced by stress,” Terhaar advises.

Terhaar also stresses the importance of producers consulting their herd veterinarian before administering vaccinations.

Prepare designated calving area
Having a designated calving area, such as a clean pasture, that is conveniently located, well-drained and protected from the weather can help minimize labor intensity and reduce calves’ risk of disease exposure. Being able to respond quickly to difficult deliveries or sick cows or calves is critical to a positive outcome. Having a supply of potential aids and treatments on hand can reduce human stress and increase the likelihood of survival of both cows and calves.

Important supplies to have on hand for calving include iodine navel dip, obstetrical assistance equipment, frozen colostrum or colostrum substitute, oral tube feeding bag, electrolytes, disinfectants and lubricants, plastic sleeves and one or two general antibiotics.

Get calves off to a strong start
When a calf is in utero, it does not obtain antibodies from the cow. Therefore, once the calf is born, the only way for it to receive the antibodies the cow developed from her vaccination and exposure to other specific antigens is through the passive transfer of immunity through colostrum. Colostrum is essential for the calf and has a long-term impact on calf health and performance. It is important calves receive adequate, high-quality colostrum within the first 12 hours of life to ensure passive transfer of immunity. Antibodies and other components in colostrum protect the calf. After 12 to 24 hours, absorption of colostral antibodies from the gut significantly decreases.

“If you know a calf is born in the morning, take the time to check it by afternoon to confirm it has nursed,” Terhaar explained. “If it hasn’t, this gives an opportunity to intervene before the vital passive transfer window closes.”

Preparing for the calving season in beef cattle requires comprehensive planning, one that emphasizes the importance of proper nutrition, well-timed vaccinations and good colostrum management. By focusing on these aspects and maintaining good animal husbandry practices, cattle producers can enhance the health and productivity of their herds.  

1 Duggan S, Pirell G, Estill C, Ranche J, Weber D. Beef cow-calf management guide. Oregon State University. 2021. Available at:

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