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Management of Neonatal Calves

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Dr. Grant Dewell

ISU Beef Extension Veterinarian

One key for profitability for cow-calf producers is pounds of calf weaned in the fall. The best way to increase the total number of pounds weaned is to have more calves alive at weaning. Typically most calf death loss occurs within the first 3 weeks of life.  Proper management focus during this time is an efficient means to enhance productivity and reduce sickness and death loss. 

The first priority is getting a live calf on the ground. Dystocia increases the risk of neonatal calf death by 4 times. Proper observation of females during the calving season can identify dystocia to allow for timely intervention. Ideally, females should be observed every two hours. A recent USDA NAHMS report reported that 50% of producers observe females more than twice a day and less than 15% observe more than 4 times a day. Once a calf is born alive they must intake colostrum for an adequate immune function. Dystocia calves should be administered colostrum via a bottle or esophageal tube instead of relying on them standing and nursing. Beef calves that do not have adequate colostrum intake and absorption may be 9 times as likely to become ill in the preweaning period than calves that had received and absorbed enough colostrum.  As usual, protect newborn calves from extreme environmental conditions when necessary. 

To prevent subsequent neonatal loss due to infectious diseases calving areas should be as clean and dry as possible. Additionally, since neonatal calves amplify pathogen levels it is important to keep newborn calves separate from older calves to break the pathogen cycle.  This can be accomplished either by removing pairs from calving area daily or by moving cows that haven’t calved to new clean pastures every week; leaving the pairs behind.
Calves should be observed at least once daily for signs of scours and other neonatal diseases. Calves that develop diarrhea need immediate care because dehydration and subsequent death can occur rapidly. Oral fluids can be used to maintain hydration although some calves will require more intensive IV fluids. It is important to remember that although most calves survive a bout of calf scours the cost of treatment and decreased performance are costly. Prevention of calf scours by minimizing length of dystocia, assuring adequate colostral intake and maintaining clean calving areas can enhance the pounds of calf weaned and overall productivity of the beef herd.

 Dr. Grant Dewell

Dr. Grant Dewell

Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine
2412 Lloyd Vet Med
Iowa State University
Ames, IA  50011

Ph: 515-294-2822
Fax: 515-294-1072