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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care March 2009

NOTE: Daylight savings time starts Sunday March 8th. Please keep calls for routine work between 7-8 am according to daylight savings time. Thank you.

Hi Folks,

For many of you, calving season is about to start in earnest. Therefore I want to give some tips for many a pleasant calvings so that both cow and calf get healthy starts. When do we start thinking about the next lactation and the newborns? - before the actual occurrence of calving, like 2-4 weeks prior to the actual time. If you have a free running bull it is always harder to know when calving will happen, except for watching for bagging up of the udder. One thing you should remember is that the immune system of the cow is lowered from about 1 week prior to calving and up to 3 weeks afterwards. The calf’s immune system is also suppressed - at birth and up to a couple weeks after. Maybe this explains to you why many problems occur in this time frame.

So let’s talk about what you can do to minimize problems. First, if there is a history of scouring calves within the first few weeks of life, you should strongly consider checking the quality and quantity of colostrum that the calves are taking in. The quantity is monitored by you. Often times I hear farmers pretty much guess that the calf got its colostrum. If there is any hint that the calf didn’t feed enough (like not being as perky as usual) or if you have any doubts whatsoever, make sure you either tube feed colostrum within the first 24-48 hours or feed a colostrum supplement (like First Defense® or Colimmune®). Checking the quality of colostrum can be done with a colostrometer or by drawing blood between day 5-7 and checking for protein levels. The colostrometer checks the colostrum that you are about to feed and alerts you to low quality while drawing blood is after the fact but indicates that management changes need to be made.

Feeding whole milk (required for organic herds) has reduced the need for my services in regards to scours in calves. This is a good thing! If you are having troubles with calves on whole milk, chances are that there is a problem with keeping the feeding bottles or boxes as clean as they should be or a problem of the calves immune systems due to not having enough good quality of colostrum in the first 48 hours of life. Always remember to feed the calf milk at body temperature or slightly warmer and at the same time every feeding. Variations of routine can harm calves severely.

To increase the antibodies provided by the mother cow in the colostrum for the calves, consider vaccinating the expectant mother about 3 weeks prior to calving when the cows’ immune systems will still respond to the immunization. One vaccine that you can give to a cow and is probably the best to enhance colostrum for calves is the Scour Guard 4 KC®. However, you need to do it twice, 2-4 weeks apart.

Calves tend to be the healthiest when on nurse cows. This is not rocket science as this is what mother nature intended. These kinds of calves tend to be the strongest, healthiest and fastest growing of any I’ve ever seen. Selecting appropriate nurse cows includes only using those that are negative for Johnes disease as the disease is easily transmitted in milk directly from the udder. Cows that are high in somatic cell count but not having outright mastitis and those cows that have lop-sided udders or are three teated are potential nurse cows as well. To have the best results have no more than 2-3 calves per cow and put calves onto cows that are recently fresh.
One thing for sure – have calves outside in fresh air as soon as possible. Pneumonia is a real threat, especially in the changing season with damp, chilly air just around freezing occurs. Dry bedding is a must – I always talk about dry bedding and with good reason.

In regards to the mother cows, older cows (3rd + lactation) often tend to be borderline low calcium cows. Just because a cow is not flat out and down with milk fever does not mean there is no calcium problem. Actually I believe that borderline low calcium is the major issue of most problems in older cows: not cleaning, mildly off-feed, mild bloat, ending up with a twisted stomach or simply never get going well. Signs of mild milk fever (low calcium) include cool ears (not yet ice cold), mild bloating on and off, and quivering of the skin at the shoulders and upper legs. The time to act is when the cow is still standing and the muscles are quivering. Using an oral calcium source is fine when the cow is standing. However, you are playing with fire if you try to drench a down cow since her swallowing muscles are also not working and you could easily end up with liquid/gel in her lungs (which will usually kill her within a couple days). But if drenching, hold the cow’s nose just above normal but never nose to sky. I strongly prefer to see farmers give an IV of calcium over an oral drench as I have been called in to too many cows that were essentially drowned (which makes the farmer feel bad since it was done with only the best intentions). When giving an IV bottle (much more effective treatment generally) the trick is to hold the bottle no higher than her backbone (for down cow or standing cow).

Cows can have low calcium problems prior to actual calving. To prevent milk fever, use apple cider vinegar given orally at the rate of 2 ounces twice daily for at least 2 weeks prior to calving (the 2-2-2 “rule”). By the way, an older cow that bags up real quick just before calving has a high likelihood of low calcium or outright milk fever. This is because the bones (which store calcium) can’t release the calcium quick enough for the demands of lactation. Apple cider vinegar help bones to release calcium. Adding in molasses is a good idea for its energy and sweet taste.

For actual calving time, look for the ligaments near the tail head loosening up, watch for milk dripping and being really bagged up. A red discharge out of a cow well before freshening date is a red flag. The cow should be checked. However, a red discharge on the day of calving is normal as the calving processes start. If a cow is pushing for a couple hours (tail out with her sides expanding periodically) but not progressing, she needs to be checked. In Holsteins, this often indicates a uterine torsion which must be manually corrected to allow calving to take place. There could be other misplaced limbs and only by reaching in will it be found out what is wrong. Always have a cow standing, if possible, to rearrange calf limbs. One thing for sure – do NOT rush a first calf heifer as they have never had their birth canal expanded before. My rule of thumb is to not pull a calf until the snout is exposed and seen. This allows the widest part of the head to expand the birth canal. Too often a farmer will reach in and feel a nose that is just beginning to come into the birth canal and want to extract the calf right then. Bad idea! A shredded fresh heifer is the usual outcome along with a dead calf. Also, always turn the calf so its backbone is NOT 12 o’clock to the cow’s backbone. Turn the calf once the calf’s head and front legs are fully exposed.

Simple monitoring, smart thinking and gentle strength all at the right time will lead to generally good results. Also, feeding a high forage diet for the cow and whole milk for the calf will keep them both generally healthy.

NOTE: I will be in Ontario Thursday March 12th and Friday March 13th for the farmers of Harmony Organics as well as Thursday April 2nd and Friday April 3rd for the farmers of Organic Meadow.

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

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