The Calving Self-Audit

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Calving season is usually a pretty bad time to decide how well your calving season is going. You’re tired, life’s coming at you fast, and your feelings about whether things are going well or not are easily biased by whether or not you’ve had to help some stubborn calf suck in the past 48 hours. That’s why, once things have calmed down and the cows are off to pasture, I like to give myself an end-of-season audit of sorts.

If you do this yourself, it’s important to remember that you can’t control everything — sometimes you just have those weeks when the sh*t hits the fan and there’s not a vet or cattle expert in the world who would have had you do a thing differently. But most of the time, there is something you can do to improve your odds — even if it’s as simple as culling a bad udder or paying a little closer attention to your mineral program. Keeping in mind that everyone’s audit’s going to look different, here are a few of the changes I’ve made over the past 5 years that have helped me get more healthy calves on the ground in a timely manner:

  1. Culling aggressively and pulling bulls earlier

When I decided I wanted to tighten up my calving season, the first thing I did was cull any cow who calved late in the season, especially if they were old. I also quit allowing for a ‘cleanup bull’ at the end of my then 70-day breeding season, as it’s just too tempting to keep an otherwise good cow around if she keeps breeding, albeit late. My calving season was almost immediately tighter — it turns out that the cows who were calving late were very likely the same bunch every year. Last year, I added more pressure yet by switching to a 60-day breeding season, which surprised me a bit in that it really had no noticeable effect on my open rate compared to past years.

2. Putting the right cows with the right bulls

When I took over management of my father’s herd, the cows were largely Simmental and Charolais crosses with a scattering of Angus and even some Maine Anjou from back in the day. As you might infer from that list, to that point neither of us had ever been terribly picky about a particular breed as long as the cow was built right, raised a good calf, and had a good attitude, among other traits. Eventually I decided that I I wanted to move the herd into more of an Angus/Charolais maternal/terminal split, but that came with a few caveats, primarily that if I was going to throw some bigger Charolais genetics at the herd, I was going to have to figure out which cows were going to be problematic. I’m not scared of big calves if the cows have no problems having them, but I was getting a significant chunk of 120–130 pounders, which was getting a bit unnerving, so I came up with my ‘hazard tag’ system for the next year. Any cow that had a calf I considered extra-large was given a bright orange tag to make sure she didn’t go to pasture with my larger calving bulls. I realize I could have just culled them, but they were otherwise good cows and I was already culling aggressively for late-calving. I’ve used my ‘hazard tag’ system for three years now, and I can happily say that I only helped deliver a single calf this year (excluding heifers), and even that one was partly because it was midnight and I didn’t want to stay up worrying about whether she’d have it herself.

3. Finding a scour-control program that worked

The area that I spring-calve in is large and well-drained, so I’ve never had a terrible time with scours, but it always seemed that just when I thought I was out of the woods, there would be a wave of diarrhea roll through (how’s that for imagery?), usually when the calves were about three weeks old. The cows had all been given Scourguard, but it just never seemed to take care of this particular strain. I tried giving First Defense boluses, but that didn’t seem to have any effect, so my vet recommended toltrazuril caspules, which I’ve now been using for two years and haven’t had a single case of scours since. It turns out that my problem wasn’t E. coli or coccidiosis, but something else entirely (possibly cryptosporidiosis?), which is why it’s always worth brainstorming these sorts of problems with your vet.

4. Making my cows put their steps in

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that last year’s calving season left me feeling a bit pessimistic. I had felt going in that I had covered my bases as best I could, and yet between higher-than-average losses and very few twins, when the dust had settled I was down about 5% on my calves as well as having lost several cows to prolapsed uteri. There is always going to be a level of loss that you just can’t do much about; a per cent loss to stillborn, another per cent to a combination of weird things like umbilical hernias, diphtheria, or paralysis from getting stepped on in the pasture (I had the pleasure of experiencing all three last year), and the reality is that some years are simply going to be worse than others.

But besides the fact that the cow gods had decided it just wasn’t my year, what was really odd was the number of backwards calves I was seeing. I probably saw 5% of my cows calving backwards, and who knows how many calved backwards without me there to witness. I asked a couple of vets for ideas, but they said there just wasn’t any conclusive research on causes of backwards calving. But that didn’t stop me from dwelling on it, and I got thinking that one of the only things I had changed from previous years was moving my straw pack closer to where I fed, which got me wondering whether the cows were simply not moving enough, and maybe that calf was having a hard time getting in the correct position ahead of its birth. In human women, I knew the rates of complications during labour rise significantly as activity level goes down, so I figured maybe it applied to cows as well (a word of warning: be very careful about using this type of logic in the presence of human women).

So this year I had the cows bedded down at least 1/4 mile from my nearest feeding area, and given the way this year’s calving went, that may have just been the trick. I didn’t have a single backwards calf (that I saw, anyways), prolapsed uterus, or any odd or unusual births for that matter. Keeping in mind that correlation does not necessarily mean causation, I’m going to keep letting the cows put a few extra steps in, as so far I haven’t found a downside to this strategy.

They say you have to be good to be lucky, and lucky to be good, and while we have to let mother nature take care of the lucky part, a yearly calving audit might just help you, in the words of Deaner from FUBAR, turn up the good, and turn down the suck.

Mark Schram is the owner of the Schram Cattle Company, a 200 head cow/calf ranch in southwestern Manitoba. You can follow him on Twitter at @schramcattleco.

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