Critical Hours for Calves

— Written By and last updated by Kim Davis

At our recent Eastern Carolina Cattlemen’s Conference, Dr. Dee Whittier, DVM of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, presented a session titled “Getting Calves out Alive”. Cattlemen and women in attendance observed and learned many tips and techniques from Dr. Whittier regarding normal vs. abnormal calving positions, and were reminded of the critical timing that can come into play when a cow prepares to calve. It’s hard to put into words what was learned in this session of the conference. It was one of those events you just had to “be there”, but, I have found what is a very helpful article by Dr. John Hall that may help us through the calving season.

You may be in the middle of calving season, finished, or just about to start, but wherever you are in this process, the following tips will be good to file away for reference whenever needed. Dr. Hall breaks up the calving process into a helpful timeline that we all can follow:

Hour -4 to 0 – Labor through Calving

Montanaresearch has shown that nearly 50% of calves that die in the first 24 hours after birth and most stillborns are because of dystocia (calving problems). When it’s calving season, cows and heifers should be checked often, 3-4 times a day or more is best. Some tricks to this might be moving them to a pasture closer to the house, and notifying family and neighbors that “its time” and asking others to notify you if they see activity. When should you assist? Earlier is better than too late, meaning if you think there is a problem, take a closer look, and if they cow is dilated assist her or get the vet there! Yes, this means spending some money, but a live calf will pay for the vet call, while a dead one (and the risk of a dead cow) is surely to lose you money. If you missed Dr. Whittier’s calving presentation at the conference, we did videotape the presentation, and there are other videos available for review. Again, calling your local vet is always a good plan too.

Hour 0-4 –Birth to Standing

Especially during bad weather times, it is critical to see a newborn calf during the first 4 hours of its life. Sometimes we may not see them this soon, but the more that can be seen, the better. Calves should stand and nurse within two hours of birth under normal conditions. Cows and calves should be checked to see if the cow has been nursed and if calves need assistance nursing so they can get colostrum. If they have not nursed within four hours of birth, they will most likely need to be tube fed colostrum. Also, during extremely cold or wet weather, weak calves can develop hypothermia, and need to be moved to a warm area.

Hour 4-12 – Standing to Processing

If the calf has not received colostrum for some reason by 12 hours, the ability of their digestive system to absorb it is reduced by 50%. Therefore, this is the last chance to receive large amounts of colostrum and absorb antibodies from it. Scours and respiratory problems are common in these calves. Processing of all calves should be done at this time. Processing includes procedures such as: tagging, navel dipping, castration of bull calves, followed by implants, tattooing (purebred operations), and documentation of weight and sex of calves. Cows should be checked at this time for expelling of afterbirth, and in severe cold weather, calves should be checked for hypothermia.

Hour 12-24 – First day

All calves not processed should be done at this time. Checking to make sure everyone is healthy, warm, and nursing is also important. If any cow-calf pairs are having problems, they can be isolated in a barn or pen at this time for closer monitoring and assistance.

Hour 24-48 – Second day

Calves should continue to be monitored, and should be easily following cows, nursing, and alert. They will of course rest and sleep a lot too as with all newborns.

Hour 48 -72 – Third day

By this time, calves probably will be and should be hard to catch, moving around well with lots of energy. Moving all healthy cows and calves into a larger, but well drained pasture is common at this time. Any cows with retained placentas should be treated at this time with antibiotics (before being turned out in a larger area). Again, keep weak or sick calves and cows in a smaller, well drained pen or barn area to monitor and treat.

These tips should give a good framework for getting cows and calves off to a good start during the calving season. Hope this give some helpful tips for anyone starting off a new calf crop!

The above article has been summarized from The Cow-Calf Manager – First 72 hours Critical for Calves, by Dr. John Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech, 2001

Eileen A. Coite
Extension Agent
Livestock & Forages
North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Wayne County Center
P.O. Box 68
Goldsboro,NC 27533
phone: (919) 731-1520
fax:   (919) 731-1511