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0809 PD: Proper calving management is key to a successful transition

Published on 18 May 2009

Healthy, productive, low maintenance cows that breed back quickly are the cows that generate the most return on investment. One key to developing these cows begins before they enter or re-enter the milking herd with proper calving management.

Dr. Christopher Schneider, DVM, MS, an Assistant Professor in Production Medicine at the University of Idaho Animal Veterinary Science Department, and Dr. Charlie Chase, DVM, MS, a technical service specialist for ABS Global, provided insight for this article. Prior to their current positions, both Schneider and Chase were practicing veterinarians in California.

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Preparing cows for calving
Preparing cows for calving is a critical part of a proper calving program. Dairy cattle that are either carrying too much condition or not enough condition at calving are at higher risk of problems, such as: dystocia, milk fever, metabolic disorders or displaced abomasum.

Dr. Schneider states that the most important aspect of proper preparation is attention to detail. “The best operations that I have observed (as measured by calf morbidity and mortality) do the little things right over and over again. I firmly believe that there are no secrets here, just superior animal husbandry. However, I acknowledge that this often becomes surprisingly difficult when herd sizes get large and labor issues arise.”

Dr. Chase agrees and adds, “Excellent management in the maternity area is paramount to current and future success of the farm. Accomplished personnel in the maternity area are as important if not more so than anywhere else on the farm; good things happen if all the little things are done right.”

One dimension of first-rate animal husbandry is creating a stress-free environment with consistent standards for calving cattle. Drs. Schneider and Chase suggest the following:

• Move animals into a large, covered loafing area at least one week before the expected due date.

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• Utilize regularly maintained sand, compost or straw bedding to provide a clean, dry environment to maximize cow comfort.

• Locate calving areas to allow for frequent observation by the staff, meanwhile minimizing noise and equipment traffic.

• Administer standard vaccines during the dry and close-up periods.

• Design facilities to encourage quiet cow movement and management.

Providing cattle with a proper environment is only the beginning. Monitoring the nutrition and maximizing dry matter intake (DMI) during this time are key to reducing peripartum challenges. In general, feeding a high-forage, lower protein (compared to lactating) diet to the cows in the dry period is important to maintain dry matter intake.

Supplying palatable formulations of anionic salts to close-up cows will help control milk fever and other postpartum diseases. Schneider recommends separating heifers from the cows to feed a higher protein and energy ration without anionic salts, as well as limiting competition for feed. The protein and energy density of both the cow and heifer ration should gradually be increased as the cattle transition from the peripartum ration to the high-lactation ration.

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Watching the quality and consistency of diets is very important, as it is not what is fed but how it is fed, which is especially important in the close-up and calving stage. Dr. Schneider states, “Attention to detail will always return more to the cows and dairy than an expensive feed additive that is not managed properly.”

Moreover, he recommends:

• a high-quality ration, fed at consistent times, with regular monitoring for compliance

• free access to feed for 24 hours a day (more than 30 inches per cow)

• access to fresh, clean, cool water is an important driver of DMI (3 to 4 inches per cow of linear tank space at two or more sites)

Proper calving protocol
Developing a routine and proper calving protocol that is followed by all employees is also key to a successful transition. There are many good sources for this, including your veterinarian, allied industry professionals or university extension websites. These protocols should be basic but sound, and take into account the biology of calving. Providing these protocols in bilingual format will also improve compliance, as employees can refer to them when questions arise.

“It is interesting to me that most dairies have a ‘calving protocol’ in their mind; however, they often do not write it down, discuss it with their key advisers, nor follow it consistently. There is commonly a procedural drift with these protocols, so you have to monitor employees routinely for compliance.”

“One simple thing that I evaluate in calving areas is the consistency of calf ear tagging and navel dipping. If these simple tasks are performed poorly, then more advanced tasks (colostrum feeding, etc.) are probably not meeting standards either. Clear protocols that are followed and monitored for compliance are much more important than the type of protocol you have on the dairy.”

The following are Dr. Schneider’s suggestions to be included in a standard calving protocol:

• Monitor calving area routinely during the course of the entire day (every hour on large farms).

• Remove cows or heifers immediately after calving to prevent nursing and place in the fresh pen.

• Move calves to a warm, dry bedded area to reduce stress.

• Process calf to include feeding colostrum, dipping navel and administer indicated oral vaccines.

• Properly tag and record visual ID, as well as brand if indicated.

• Complete a written calving record for each cow, including:

– time of active calving signs (laying down and pushing)

– calving date and time

– sex of calf

– any notes, such as pull, ease, etc.

– calves’ identification, sex, quantity of colostrum fed and when fed

Dr. Schneider reminds producers that the degree of the protocols are not as important as following them, namely, writing down what was done and monitoring for compliance. If you cannot measure and monitor it, then you cannot manage it. Any drug or procedure done to the calf and dam should be scrutinized by the farm’s professional advisers for biologic rationale. With the advent of RFIDs, PDAs and wand-reading technologies, the implementation of these protocols will be much easier in the years to come.

Dr. Chase adds, “The care of the neonatal calf is as important as preparing the fresh cow for lactation in the insurance of future success of the dairy. Neonatal blood sampling for serum protein concentrations provide an easy monitor for colostrum feeding compliance.”

Healthy, productive cows Proper calving management produces more profitable cows that can hit the ground running post-calving. To optimize these procedures on your operation, work closely with your dairy management team. PD

—Excerpts from ABS Technical Services Global Newsletter, January 2009

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