Cow Calf Corner: Effects of Calving Difficulty and Confined Calving on Calf Sickness

As the 2011 spring calving season begins, producers may want to assess some basic management strategies that affect the incidence of sickness in the baby calves.  Two key areas to consider include (1) the condition of the calving pasture and (2) the amount of calving difficulty that occurs in the herd.

Over 10 years ago, USDA and Kansas State researchers surveyed 2490 beef herds in 23 states to study the impact of management factors on calf sickness from birth to weaning.  Herds that reported more than 10% of the calves becoming sick from scours, respiratory illness, pinkeye, or footrot were classified as “high sickness herds”.  From their survey data they concluded that herds having 70% or more of the cows and heifers calve in confinement was associated with increased risk of being a high calf sickness herd.  Herds with increased calving difficulty were also likely to be high calf sickness herds.  In this data set, the average percentage difficult births for cows and heifers combined was 4%, whereas the average for just heifers alone was 16.7%.  Approximately 40% of the herds experienced high sickness from the effect of calving difficulty and 10% from the effect of confined calving.  (Source: Sanderson and Dargatz, KSU Cattlemen’s Day 2000. )

The take-home messages appear to be clear.  When possible, have cows and especially first calf heifers in pastures (rather than closely confined drylots) during the calving season.  Develop heifers well enough to avoid unnecessary calving difficulty.  Breed them to bulls with low birth weight EPD’s, and then provide early assistance to those cows and heifers that experience problems during the calving process.

Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension Animal Scientist


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