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Calving time for most is just over for this year, but the cycle keeps on going.

It is now a great time to 'take stock' and plan for the coming season.

Read this article for some useful hints and tips for the coming season. It has been put together by John Macfarlane, a vet in a large XL Vet practice in the North of England who deals mainly with beef cattle and sheep.


Preparations for Calving

Whether you have dairy cows or beef sucklers, calving time is probably the most important stage of the production cycle. For beef farmers it marks the arrival of this year’s entire production and on the dairy farm a successful calving determines the productivity for the following lactation. As well as the obvious vulnerability of the calf during and immediately after calving, it is the time when cows are most likely to be injured or become ill.

Clearly, a lot hinges on the outcome of the calving period, particularly when the herd is bred seasonally; preparation is critical to a successful result. But when should this preparation begin?

Selecting the parents

In truth, it starts when the sire and dam are selected. Whether it is a replacement bull or the semen straws from the catalogue, calving ease and birth weights should be high on the list of your selection priorities. Estimated Breeding Values are available for most breeds now and these provide a guide to potential breeding traits of each bull and of any daughters he produces (as well as predicting production characteristics for milk or meat). Selection of replacement heifers should be based on age, weight and physical appraisal. Pelvimetry (measuring the dimensions of the heifer’s pelvis) and Reproductive Tract Scoring a month before bulling helps identify the best females for the breeding herd.  

Feeding the cow

Feed requirements need to be managed during pregnancy. Cows must calve down in optimal condition, condition score 3 for Autumn calving suckler cows and condition score 2.5 for Spring calvers. Calves are then not oversized and cows are neither over-fat nor suffering sub-nutrition. When intakes are lacking in energy, protein, minerals or vitamins, complications for the cow or the calf will result. These could include milk fever, phosphorus deficiency and poor quality and/or quantity of colostrum in the cow. The indirect effects on the calf of under- or over-feeding the cow are numerous. Protracted calvings will result if cows have been fed too much or if they have been underfed. Mineral imbalances (particularly calcium, magnesium and phosphorus) can extend or even halt the process of calving and put cow and calf at risk. Detailed transition ration planning is an essential part of managing the dairy herd.

Feeding the calf

A good dose of quality colostrum early in life (“six pints in six hours” or 8–10% of body weight) is one of life’s essentials. Colostrum provides protein, energy, water, minerals, vitamins and medicine, all in a single package. The antibodies in colostrum provide protection from many of the infectious diseases to which the cow has been exposed for the first weeks of a calf’s life. It should be considered the single most important medicine a calf ever gets. However uptake of these colostral antibodies from the calf’s gut only occurs during the first 12-24 hours of life so if the cow isn’t able to deliver enough good colostrum you need to have planned an alternative. Colostrum from the first milking of other cows (not heifers) in the herd can be used, either fresh or frozen. Stored frozen colostrum should be thawed gradually and never microwaved as cooking will denature the antibodies. In the event that cow colostrum from your own farm is unavailable, it is best to use a good quality powdered replacement. The unknown risk from diseases such as Johne’s Disease, mycoplasmas, coliforms, salmonella etc means that colostrum obtained from other herds should never be used. A colostrimeter can be used to easily measure the quality of supplementary colostrum before use.

Medicines during Pregnancy

In many herds preparation for calving also requires ensuring correct vaccination of cows for diseases such as leptospirosis, BVD, clostridia, rotavirus and E. coli so that protective antibodies are present in the cow during pregnancy and in the colostrum at calving time. Some herds may need vitamin E/selenium treatment in advance of calving.


Timing of calving needs to be planned to ensure the availability adequate staffing and of calving facilities, whether this is a suitable paddock outside or yards or pens inside. A means of handling cows which need intervention should ensure the safety of stockmen and be easy to deploy. Always have a halter and your preferred method of applying traction at hand, with calving ropes, clean water and buckets, disinfectant, gloves and lubrication in case they are needed.

Medicines for Calving

Supplies which may be required after calving might include doxapram to stimulate breathing in new-borns, navel treatment to prevent navel infections, antibiotic injection, sterile needles and syringes, ear tags, electrolytes, colostrum and milk substitutes and clean tube feeders.

However, even with the best of preparation things can go wrong, and in preparing for calving it is as well to be ready for these complications as well. Calcium and phosphorus injections for recumbent cows and a mechanical method of lifting recumbent cows should always be immediately available. I am strongly of the opinion that all farms should have a cow lifter (NOT a Bagshaw hoist/”hugger”) available on their own farm – if it needs to be borrowed or hired there will always be a temptation to “give her another day” to see if she’ll get up herself. That delay can be the difference between a full recovery and a phone call to the knacker man.


Don’t let calving catch you out, get the preparation done in plenty of time and get through calving with all of your potential production intact.

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” (Benjamin Franklin).

Donald S McGregor & Partners Ltd is a company registered in Scotland SC495194 | Registered Address: Veterinary Surgery, Janet Street, Thurso, KW14 7EG

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