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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care                                                 March 2004

Hi Folks,           

            Since we are getting into calving season, I’d like to continue talking about calves and calf care. Last month I discussed why it is important to feed hay to calves on milk and replacer. This month, I want to talk about the last couple weeks leading up to calving and neonatal calf care.

            To begin with, the calving area needs to be clean. I realize this is easier said than done. However, being that it is only March and the weather and ground can be very cold and damp, consideration must be given to what is in the best interest of both cow and calf if you are making your living as a dairy farmer. Remember that the calving time is the most stressful for the cow and is obviously of critical importance to the start of the newborn calf. (Calf jackets are great for any wet/damp calf born outside that is weak.)

            So perhaps we may want to think about the cow prior to actually calving - especially about 3 weeks before calving. This is when you want to have the cow at the location where she will be calving. Why? This is so that she will make the correct antibodies (which will be in her colostrum) that are specific to the location. So have her on the farm where she will be when she calves - try not to ship her right around calving time as her immune system not very effective due to the internal stresses and hormones associated with calving. I have seen way too many cows become critically ill (basically a disaster) when they are bought in right at freshening from a sales stable and/or they actually calve-in on some transport truck. So - at 3 weeks before calving, we still have time to influence the cow’s immune system in a positive way, if indicated by the history of the farm. In other words, we may want to vaccinate a cow with a coliform vaccine at this time in order to protect her from getting coliform mastitis when she is just fresh and secondarily to benefit the calf with enriched colostrum to protect it from deadly coliform scours in the first couple weeks of its life. If either of these two conditions happens with some regularity on your farm, seriously consider vaccinating with either Endovac-Bovi® or J-5®. For these two products you must also vaccinate the cow some 3-4 weeks previously, if it is the initial time using it. Annual boosters are effective. For 1st calf heifers (whose colostrum is never as enriched with antibodies as a mature cow), consider using a rota-corona vaccine if scours in calves always seems to be a problem. Don’t forget to also give a dose of vitamin E and selenium (MuSe) or feed Synplex® selenium about at about 2-3 weeks before caving (in selenium deficient areas), especially if retained placentas are occurring. Retained placentas will of course happen with hard calvings, twins, early calvings and hypocalcemic (milk fever) cows, but if they are occurring other than at these times with any regularity, definitely check your selenium levels. Do not be feeding dry cows a ration with more than 2-2.2% potassium; otherwise you may experience milk fevers or sub-clinical milk fevers where the cow isn’t down but is very slow to start (which may give a twisted stomach). Consider giving either 2 ounces apple cider vinegar (cows don’t mind vinegar) twice daily for the last two weeks to dry cows or use anionic salts (very unpalatable). If severe edema is a problem, you have too many sources of sodium in your ration. In the last couple weeks before calving, consider teat dipping dry cows as the keratin plug is softening and any leaking cows have increased chances of contracting coliform mastitis, especially when considering mud and moisture with warming temperatures.

            The calving area must at least be dry with a lot of new straw or fodder - hard to do when outside, but if using box stalls, this is not impossible. I realize that not all box stalls get cleaned out between calvings (although they should!), but spongy bedding is a recipe for health disasters in both cow and calf. Straw or fodder is best. Sawdust may lead to mastitis with leakers and chopped newspaper sticks to everything that is wet. Sand is ideal, but is not available in all areas. If possible, dip the calf’s navel in iodine a couple times a day for the first few days (just like a baby), until it dries up. I realize the cow may lick it off, but its antiseptic action upon contact far outweighs the potential health problems that crop up from navel infections (i.e. joint ill - swollen joint or joints a few weeks later that are near impossible to clear up).

            Also, do not rush to help a springing heifer to freshen. It is the absolute wrong thing to do! An animal calving for the first time needs to have the calf’s head dilate the birth canal effectively, otherwise rips can occur (sometimes fatally if they extend to, and beyond, the cervical-uterine junction). Obviously a live calf is great, but getting one pulled out as fast as possible from a 1st calf heifer may lead to the demise of the young cow (how much time and money did you already spend to raise her up?). Have patience!

            What to do with the calf? Get 1 gallon of good colostrum into her within the first 6 hours of life. This is not impossible. It is your responsibility to make sure this occurs! If the calf does not suck for whatever reason, use a commercial calf tube feeder. You must take advantage of the open and accepting gut during this critical time. If the cow died during birth and there are no other fresh cows with colostrum, use a commercial source of antibodies (there are many) as soon as possible (not tomorrow - too late!).

            Hutches are the best areas for calves to remain healthy. They hardly ever get pneumonia when in hutches. They very commonly get pneumonia when raised in pens which share the same air as the milking herd. Whether out in hutches or in pens in the main barn, dry bedding is absolutely critical for their continued health. Spongy, wet bedding that they must lay on, or soup that they stand in, is another recipe for disaster. Scours can hit calves whether in hutches or group pens. By feeding whole milk, mixed grass hay and a few pounds of grain, you are putting on flesh and they will have good body reserves if the scours hit. If using replacer and you see hair loss on the muzzle, either you are not mixing it correctly, feeding it at the wrong temperature or have old replacer. Hopefully, the earlier section on hyper-immunizing your dry cows and clean, dry bedding will help reduce the viral and bacterial types of scours. If scouring, feed calves 1/2 - 2/3 a bottle, but do it 4 times daily. Alternate electrolytes and real milk.

            Coccidia calves usually appear with an enlarged belly, rough hair, and manure splattered and dried on their back legs. I usually see this in pens that are continually used for calves and which are not disinfected effectively. Hutches, which can be moved to new locations between calves, do not generally have this problem. Sometimes, if you use ivermectin to worm the calf, the animal will then be less stressed and can overcome the coccidia with its own immune system. It is when they are parasitized with both coccidia and worms that they become overwhelmed. There are some promising natural wormers being studied in field trials and I will comment on them in another newsletter. Ivermectin is OK for organic farms, so consider it for calves when other remedies aren’t working.     

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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