Calving is the culmination of an entire year of planning, feeding and careful breeding selections. The time of year where you sleep very little and work endlessly to nurture the new lives that arrive each day. It’s exciting to see each little face as they get cleaned off and take their first, wobbling steps, then running and bucking in no time at all. It can also be incredibly stressful, given the lack of sleep and the constant demands of the cattle who are responding to the pressure from Mother Nature. As I write, we are in the midst of a deep freeze on the grasslands of the Eastern Slopes in southwestern Alberta. Ranchers all around me are frantically trying to keep tractors running and metal components from breaking in the brutal cold. I’m sure they feel a little like a rap singer ‘making it rain’ (throwing money) as they fire up the bale processor to put out fresh bedding, just now. Here are a few things you can do to help make calving go a little smoother for you, regardless of what Mother Nature decides to throw at you.
1. Feed Quality
Test. Test. Test. I cannot say it enough. The expense of a $50-$100 feed test will be well worth every penny. Given the scarcity of quality feed on the prairies this year, prices are through the roof. You don’t want to have to feed an ounce more than necessary to maintain body condition on your cows. Knowing what’s IN your feed can make all the difference in the world.
- Alberta Agriculture has a free Nutrient Loading Calculator to help you determine what you need to do with the feed you have.
- Low protein? Look into ordering protein lick tubs from your farm supply store. Don’t be fooled by a lower price point! Be sure to ask about intake/consumption rates as they can vary significantly from a pressed tub to a cooked tub. Sometimes the pricier tub is the better deal. Break it down to a price per head, per day.
- I recommend getting the minerals in your feed tested as this will also make it easier to decide what minerals you should be providing for your bred cows. They do need extra minerals, especially your very young and old cows.
- Loose salt and mineral should always be available free choice, but sometimes that isn’t practical, so blocks are better than nothing at all.
- This download from Saskatchewan Agriculture has lots of detailed information about feeding your herd through the winter –https://publications.saskatchewan.ca/api/v1/products/115015/formats/130032/download
2. Body Condition
Canada uses a 5-point scoring system with 2.5-3 being the ideal score for cows about to begin calving. Being under, or overweight, coming into calving time can be problematic for you and your cows.
- Underweight cows may not have the energy to deliver quickly and easily on their own and may reduce colostrum production. A balanced feed and mineral program will help you meet the dietary needs of the majority of your herd.
- Keep in mind that young cows will almost always need an extra boost through their first pregnancy as their body continues to grow and mature while nurturing their growing calf, too. This also will apply to your old cows. If they’ve given you enough good calves to justify their continued existence after 8+ years, consider an extra ration of oats or barley as your thanks to them.
- Given that you want 65% of your herd to calve on that first breeding cycle, body condition becomes even more important after calving. Skinny cows may not cycle quickly after calving and overweight cows, while they may cycle, have shown lower conception rates.
- Not sure how to score your cattle? Check out Body Condition – Beef Cattle Research Council for a score sheet and valuable info to help guide you.
Colostrum is the first milk from the cow and is so critical after birth to ensure the calf gets that extra immune boost from mama.
- Ideally, they should have colostrum in the first hour after birth, but up to 6 hours after is better than not at all.
- IgG (immunoglobulin G) makes up over 80% of the antibodies available in natural colostrum with immunoglobulin A & immunoglobulin M making up the remaining 15-20%. There are quite a few brands on the market now and they vary in IgG content, mixability, and price. Don’t be afraid to test out a few different kinds.
- My parents used to buy fresh colostrum from a local dairy and keep frozen in 1L bottles in the freezer. Do not use the microwave to thaw these! A hot water bath work best.
- No matter which one you prefer, having powdered or frozen colostrum on hand can make a significant difference when weather conditions are challenging for your calves. Do whatever works best for you, but make sure you’re ready at least two weeks before your first cows are due to calve.
4. Be prepared
It’s the Boy Scout’s motto for a reason. Being ready ahead of time will save you stress, unplanned trips to town, and maybe even midnight calls to the vet.
- Your farm supply store probably has a complete list of items you’ll need for calving. Don’t be afraid to ask at the counter. They may have new products you were unaware of, or maybe new info on an old standby product.
- Supply chain issues have become more troublesome in the last few years, too, with many manufacturers moving to just-in-time production which can end up too late if there are any problems along the road.
- Don’t wait until the last minute to look for things you know you’ll need. Go through your supplies from last year, take an inventory and replenish now.
- Make a list you can use year after year and store everything in a plastic tote bin to keep things clean and all items together. A tote bin makes it easy to grab in a rush, too.
Tanya Froh is a farm girl, born and raised, from northern Alberta. She has a diploma in Agriculture Technology, majoring in livestock production with minors in ag business and crop production. Her family raised purebred Polled Hereford cattle while she still lived at home and her dad runs commercial cattle, still. She worked for various farm input retailers for over 20 years and is now a farm revenue insurance advisor working with Global Ag Risk Solutions. She lives near Cayley, Alberta.