How many calves are lost during the first two weeks after birth on your operation?

Losing calves is always depressing. Producers rely on income from those calves to offset annual cow costs and provide income for the cow-calf enterprise. Dead calves add nothing to income and removing a dead calf is never something a producer wants to do.

Regardless of the reason, disappointment always is evident as a new mother follows the dead calf to the gate. Perhaps the gate simply closes, but more than likely, the cow follows through as well, only to be removed from her calf.

North Dakota State University Extension has some excellent benchmarking data to suggest calf death loss averages 3.26 percent. That equates to three to four calves for every 100 beef cows. Abortions would add to the loss resulting in 4 percent of cows not raising calves past two weeks of age.

The most common recorded reasons of death are calves that are stepped on, deformities, hypothermia, death while calving, birth difficulty or simply born dead. If the calf stands or there is evidence that the calf was up and about, the most common recorded reasons for death are dehydration, no milk, hypothermia, abandonment, calves are stepped on or other poor mothering ability.

Less than 1 percent of the cows abort their calves. Occasionally a calf is found that was not full-term. These calves seem to be more of a function of aggressive handling, high stress events such as ice slippage because their arrival often will coincide with recent cow handling or follow a highly stressful events.

With the cow vaccination protocols available today, seldom does one see the incidence of individual disease outbreaks that were much more common in years past. However, you should never let your guard down because the exposure to disease or non-vaccinated herds will create the increased risk of a disease.

Increased incidence of disease

During the first two weeks of a calf’s life, producers will experience an increased incidence of scours or other disease-generating organisms in their calves. Many times, calf survival goes back to the first day of birth and is dependent on getting colostrum or the cows’ first milk consumed quickly and efficiently during the first 12 hours of life. Failure to nurse quickly will increase the incidence of calf disease susceptibility in early life. The result is more work and more dead calves.

If calving book records start indicating dehydration and scours, you need to be looking at immediate management changes. Calves in close contact with each other (cross-exposure) certainly enhance the spreading of health issues. Space, dry bedding and sunshine become essential for a return to normal calving operations. Remember, those calves are not as tolerant to adverse weather conditions. Once wet and cold, calves can go downhill fast without quick management changes.

All producers should have a strong relationship with their veterinarian and Extension educator. Be prepared to have veterinary evaluation done on sick or dead calves to get a definitive diagnosis of the problem. Keep in mind that many times a specific diagnosis is elusive because many symptoms may come from multiple sources, so using a good herd health protocol is essential.

If warning flags are flying high, look closely to see if there is a fundamental flaw in management. Is the problem too many cows? Not enough space? Not enough help? Not enough bedding? Adequate feed? These are all symptoms that can be corrected by better management. If the warning flag is flying, some self-assessment is critical.

Now is the time to evaluate your system and determine if you have specific problems and identify solutions for the current calving season and future years.