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Avoid difficult calvings by good management

Having suckler cows in the right body condition and ensuring adequate mineral intakes in the run up to calving can make a big difference during calving and on subsequent herd fertility.


Angela   Calvert

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Angela   Calvert
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This is according to Catriona Ritchie, SAC Consulting vet, who says getting cows in the ideal condition takes weeks to months of management and cannot be left until too close to calving.
Ms Ritchie advises putting a plan in place to monitor body condition scores at different time points so feeding and grazing or stocking rates can be adjusted as necessary. It can be useful, she adds, to record condition scores precisely and over time, on a scale of one to five, with one being very thin and five being very fat.


She says: “Group cows according to body condition and feed them appropriately. The aim should be to have them in the correct body condition six weeks before calving and to maintain this until calving. To achieve good fertility and milk yields, cows should be on an increased plane of nutrition from calving until about six weeks into the breeding period.”
Ideally, cows should be pregnancy tested about six weeks after the bull has been removed. This means cows can be split into batches based on their approximate due dates so once the earliest cows have calved they can receive extra feed more easily.


Ms Ritchie says: “This also helps control calf diseases. Scour problems tend to be worse in the second half of calving due to calves being continually born into a group and being exposed to older calves and increasing levels of challenge. If calves are born in batches which are closely matched for age the disease risk decreases. It may still be necessary to have a separate group if there are some very thin cows that would benefit from extra nutrition.”

 

Poor body condition and inadequate nutrition are two of the commonest causes of poor fertility in suckler herds.
Ms Ritchie says: “It is much easier to get winter feeding and therefore body condition right if the quality of the diet is known, so it is always advisable to have silage or other feedstuffs analysed. If there is inadequate protein intake cows will lose condition, have smaller, weaker calves and poorer quality colostrum, with the knock-on effect of an increased risk of disease in young calves. Milk yields will be lower, resulting in reduced calf weight gains and cows that have lost too much condition. They will take longer to get back in-calf, so next year’s calf will be born later and will be lighter at weaning. Calving becomes more spread out as a result.”


Very thin cows are more prone to needing assistance at calving and are at higher risk of becoming downer cows after calving. Thin cows usually take longer to start cycling after calving and often have lower conception rates. Cows which are too fat are likely to have excess fat laid down in the pelvis which can result in calving difficulties and higher calf mortality and the risk of tears.

Slow calving syndrome

Having a correctly balanced mineral intake in the run up to calving can make a significant difference at calving.


Ms Ritchie explains: “To expel the calf, repeated contractions of the womb and muscles are required and this process requires calcium. If there is insufficient calcium the cow may start showing signs of labour but fail to progress, which increases the risk of stillbirth. Giving them a bottle of calcium at this stage can help them start again but if there is any doubt as to the cause, then it is best to consult your vet first.”


In the weeks before calving minerals should have a relatively low level of calcium otherwise it can interfere with the cow’s ability to mobilise calcium at calving when there is a sudden demand for it for labour and milk production.


Ms Ritchie says: “An adequate daily intake of magnesium is essential to help mobilise calcium so if a cow is not taking in enough minerals it can result in low blood magnesium which then leads to low calcium at the point of calving.”
To check if magnesium levels are adequate, blood samples can be collected from half a dozen cows that are within a few weeks of calving. Other signs calcium levels may be too low are downer cows, retained placentas and prolapses of the womb. The latter can also occur as the result of a difficult calving and other factors can be involved in retained cleansings apart from low calcium.


Ms Ritchie says: “Easy calving minerals are marketed and reports suggest some of these appear to make calving easier by making the birth fluids more of a lubricant so calves are more easily expelled. Pre-calving minerals, as well as containing extra magnesium, also tend to contain higher levels of selenium, vitamins A and E and iodine.


“It is worth having a think about how you supplement minerals because it might be the case all cows are not getting their requirements. Offering minerals ad lib in a separate trough can lead to variable intakes and sprinkling them on top of the feed is not ideal as shy feeders may not get their fair proportion by the time they get access to the feed. Spending time focusing on managing cow body condition and mineral intakes can pay off by making a significant difference to calf health, vigour and mortality rates and also herd fertility.”

Target body condition scores at different stages of the production cycle


Spring calvers


Autumn calvers


Calving


2.5-3


3


Bulling


2.5-3


2.5-3


Housing


3-3.5


3


  • Selenium crosses the placenta into the calf and can be important for calf vigour
  • Vitamin E does not significantly cross the placenta so the main source of it for the calf is the colostrum
  • If the cow’s diet contains a high level of vitamin E it should result in colostrum which is rich in it
  • Both vitamin E and selenium are important for a healthy immune system
  • Iodine deficiency can result in stillbirths or weak calves with low disease resistance and susceptibility to chilling and in cows there may be retained cleansings and poor fertility
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