Cow Nutrition Prior to Calving

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Preparing for
a Successful
Calving Season

      Greg Lardy, Ph.D.
   Extension Beef Specialist
                                 Cow Nutrition Prior to Calving
NDSU Animal and Range Sciences   During the last trimester of pregnancy, the fetus grows rapidly,
                                 placing increasing nutrient demands on the cow. In addition, cold
   Charlie Stoltenow, DVM        weather increases the cow’s nutrient requirements. Body condition
    Extension Veterinarian       (fat cover) plays an important role in successfully wintering
NDSU Animal and Range Sciences
                                 beef cows. Late weaning, overstocking, late supplementation,
                                 poor parasite control programs, and inadequate winter rations
                                 can all lead to cows in poor body condition.

                                                                                       JUNE 2001

Why is body condition                      60 and 90 days following                          nutrition during gestation
important?                                 calving. A greater percentage                     will affect the health and
                                           of cows with BCS 5 or greater                     productivity of the newborn calf.
In spring-calving cow herds,
                                           at calving will be in heat at the
body condition score (BCS)
                                           start of the breeding season.                     Table 3 shows data from
at calving is closely related
                                           If a cow is in heat at the                        research that investigated
to a number of production
                                           beginning of the breeding                         weaning dates and supplemen-
parameters in the cow and the
                                           season, the greater the chance                    tation programs in eastern
newborn calf. Research has
                                           that she will breed and calve                     Montana. Calves were weaned
clearly demonstrated that spring
                                           early in the season, resulting                    and supplementation programs
calving cows should be at BCS
                                           in heavier weaning weights                        started in either mid-September
5 or higher at calving time for
                                           the subsequent fall.                              or mid-December. This research
optimal reproductive perfor-
                                                                                             shows there is more than
mance the following breeding
                                           Table 2 shows the effect of cow                   one way to manipulate BCS.
season. It is also recommended
                                           body condition score at calving                   Either early weaning or early
that earlier calving cows
                                           on colostral immunoglobulins.                     supplementation allowed cows
(January and February calving)
                                           Immunoglobulins are proteins                      to maintain condition going
and young cows (2- and 3-year-
                                           that contain antibodies present                   into the winter. However,
olds) calve in slightly higher
                                           in the colostrum. These immu-                     both late weaning and lack
BCS (5.5). The time to
                                           noglobulins help protect the calf                 of supplementation for cows
manipulate BCS is during
                                           from disease. Cows in higher                      nursing calves caused loss in
the fall of the year when
                                           body condition scores had                         weight and condition. Cows
weaning date and supple-
                                           more immunoglobulins in their                     gain body condition when
mentation programs can
                                           colostrum than thinner cows.                      calves are weaned and proper
dramatically affect body
                                           Thus, you can see that cow                        supplementation is provided.
condition. It is very difficult
and expensive to change BCS
following calving, since the               Table 2. Effect of cow condition at calving on calf serum
nutrient demands of lactation              immunoglobulin level.
are very high during that time.                                                 Cow Body Condition Score
                                                                                  3         4         5         6           P-Value
Table 1 shows BCS of cows
                                           Calf serum IgM (mg/dl)                146       157       193       304            .05
and the percentages in heat                Calf serum IgG (mg/dl)               1998      2179      2310      2349            .23
                                           Adapted from Odde, 1997, Proceedings Bovine Connection to Profit.

Table 1. Effect of body
condition score on cows in heat
                                           Table 3. Effect of weaning date and supplementation on cow weight
at beginning of breeding season.
                                           and body condition score changes in eastern Montana.
                        Cows in Heat (%)
                                                                    ———————————— Weaning Date ————————————
BCS at Calving       60 days     90 days                                      September 19                          December 11
Thin (1-4)              46         66                                No Supplement      Supplement        No Supplement    Supplement
Moderate (5-6)          61         92      Weight change (lbs)            –23                80              –130             –25
Fleshy (7-9)            91        100      BCS change                      –0.1              +1.3              –1.4            –0.6
Adapted from Whittier and Stevens, 1993,   Adapted from Short et al., 1996, Journal of Animal Science 74:1701-1710.
Missouri Cooperative Extension Service
G2230.                                     Supplement and weaning significant (P < .01). Interaction was nonsignificant.

Some research also indicates        or injection. Poor quality           calves which are less active
that supplementation with whole     forages, crop residues, and          immediately after birth can
oilseeds (particularly safflower    weathered dormant grasses            also result.
and soybean) in late gestation      are deficient in vitamin A.
may have positive effects on        Deficiencies of vitamin A            Research by Dr. Bob Bellows
calf survival and cow rebreeding    will result in weak, blind or        from the Fort Keogh Research
performance. However, this          stillborn calves, as well as         Center at Miles City, Montana,
response has not been seen          respiratory problems, poor           (Table 4) indicates that plane
with all research conducted with    reproduction, and poor gain.         of nutrition during gestation
whole oilseed supplementation                                            plays a role in dystocia (calving
and more research is necessary      Many other trace minerals and        difficulty) and calf survival.
before conclusive recommenda-       vitamins play a role in producing    Even though cows fed on a
tions can be made regarding         a healthy, vigorous calf. These      high plane of nutrition during
this practice.                      include vitamin E, selenium,         gestation had higher birth
                                    zinc, and copper. Providing          weights, dystocia was lower,
                                    a good quality trace mineral         scours incidence and mortality
     Proper energy and              and vitamin supplementation          were lower, calf survival at
       protein nutrition is         program during late gestation        weaning was higher, and cows
      important for cows            is important to both the cow         had higher pregnancy rates
                                    and the gestating calf.              the following breeding season.
   to maintain or increase
        body condition.                                                  Overfeeding gestating beef
                                    Effect of precalving                 cows can result in problems
                                    nutrition on                         at calving time. Cows that are
For specific information on
beef cow nutrient requirements,
                                    birth weight and                     over-conditioned deposit fat
refer to EB-74, “NRC Nutrient
                                    calving difficulty                   in the birth canal, resulting in
                                    Some producers mistakenly            calving difficulty. Extremely
Requirements for Beef Cows.”
                                    believe that reducing nutrient       cold temperatures during late
For more information on body
                                    intake prior to calving will         gestation can increase calf birth
condition scores of beef cattle,
                                    reduce calf birth weight and         weight by increasing blood flow
refer to AS-1026, “Managing
                                    subsequently reduce the              to the uterus, which results in
Your Cow Herd Through Body
                                    incidence of dystocia or calving     increased nutrient supply to
Condition Scoring.”
                                    difficulty. This is validated in     the fetus.
Adequate vitamin A is also          numerous research trials
necessary to ensure that calves     conducted across the country.        Effect of precalving
are vigorous and healthy at         Low planes of nutrition have         nutrition on calf
birth. The precursor to vitamin A   been shown to have no effect
(carotene) is found in green,
                                                                         and dam behavior
                                    or slightly decrease birth weight.
leafy forages and good quality      However, calving difficulty          Research conducted in Australia
green hays. Supplemental            typically increases with this        has investigated the effects of
vitamin A can be given through      practice since the cow tends         precalving nutrition level on calf
fortified feeds, mineral mixes,     to be weaker. In addition, weak      and dam behavior immediately
                                                                         following calving (Table 5).

Table 4. Effect of low or high gestation feeding level on calving and                               daylight hours (when you have
subsequent reproduction.a
                                                                                                    an opportunity to watch them
                                                                                    Low    High     more closely). This method of
Calf Traits                                                                                         management was developed
      Calf birth weight (lbs)                                                         63     69
                                                                                                    by Gus Konefal, a Manitoba
      Dystocia (%)                                                                    35     28
      Calf survival at birth (%)                                                      93     91     Hereford breeder. The system
      Calf survival at weaning (%)                                                    58     85     involves feeding twice daily,
      Scours incidence (%)                                                            52     33     once at 11:00 a.m. to 12 noon
      Mortality due to scours (%)                                                     19     0
                                                                                                    and again at 9:30 to 10 p.m.
Dam Traits
                                                                                                    This practice should be started
    Estrus at the beginning of the breeding season (%)                                48     69
    Pregnancy (%)                                                                     65     75     about one month before the
                                                                                                    first calf is born and continue
    Summary of seven research trials by Dr. Bob Bellows, USDA-ARS, Miles City, Montana.
    Range Beef Cow Symposium XIII, 1993, pp. 175-189. Cows on low plane of nutrition                for the duration of the calving
    lost weight. Cows on high plane of nutrition gained weight.
                                                                                                    season. Konefal reported that
                                                                                                    using this regime, 80 percent
Table 5. Effect of precalving nutrition on calf and dam behavior.                                   of his cows calved between
                                                          High            Maintenance       Low     7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Iowa State
                                                          Plane              Plane         Plane
                                                                                                    University research indicated
    No. dams observed                                       19                20            20
                                                                                                    similar results.
    No. calves observed                                     16                18            20
    Duration of parturition (min.)                        109.0a              89.4a        142.7a   Scientists at USDA-ARS,
    Time taken by dams to rise
                                                                                                    Miles City, also conducted a
      after calving (min.)                                  11.6a             14.4a         30.7a
    Time taken by calves to stand
                                                                                                    three-year study on feeding
      after birth (min.)                                    23.5a            160.0b        221.3b   time. Their results were not as
    Time elapsing from birth to first                                                               dramatic. However, the percent-
      suckling (min.)                                       86.5a            134.8a        305.7b
                                                                                                    age of cows calving from 10
        Values with different superscripts are significantly different (P < .05).                   p.m. to 6 a.m. was consistently
        Krokev and Cummins, 1979, Australian Vet Journal 55:467.
                                                                                                    10 to 20 percent lower for the
                                                                                                    late-fed cows compared with the
                                                                                                    early-fed cows. Similar research
Calves born to dams on a                                   Can feeding time affect                  at the Brandon, Manitoba
low plane of nutrition took                                when calves are born?                    research station indicated
significantly longer to nurse                                                                       a 13.5 percent reduction in
                                                           (The Konefal Calving                     the number of cows calving
than calves born to dams on
a maintenance or high plane
                                                           Method)                                  between midnight and 7:00 a.m.
of nutrition. The longer the                               The time of day that cows are            However, research conducted in
calf takes to nurse, the higher                            fed during the calving season            Indiana with dairy cows showed
the likelihood that colostrum                              can influence the time when              no particular benefit to night
absorption will not be adequate                            calves are born. Cows fed at             feeding.
to protect the calf from disease.                          night tend to calve during the

Colostrum                              The amount of colostrum
                                                                       fed fresh. Colostrum can be
                                                                       collected at calving, stored
Management                               produced by a cow is          frozen, and used at a later
                                        affected by breed type         date as well. To facilitate storage
Colostrum — a vital
                                        (dairy breeds produce          and thawing, you may want
food for the newborn
                                        more than beef breeds)         to consider storing colostrum
Colostrum intake is critical for                                       in Ziploc® bags or Serving
the newborn calf. At birth, a
                                              and cow age
                                                                       Savers®. The bags or containers
calf’s immune system is not fully       (mature cows produce
                                                                       will store flat in the freezer and
developed. The calf must rely             more than heifers).          you can use a size which makes
on colostrum from the cow until         Cows on higher planes          thawing individual “servings” of
its own immune system is totally       of nutrition also produce       colostrum easier (1 or 2 quarts).
functional (about 1 to 2 months             more colostrum             Colostrum should not be thawed
of age). Colostrum contains                                            and refrozen.
                                            than cows on a
antibodies or immunoglobulins
necessary to provide the calf
                                         low plane of nutrition.
                                                                       Antibodies and immunoglobulins
protection from disease. For                                           in colostrum are protein. Correct
colostrum to be most effective,      Calves that have experienced      thawing is important to prevent
the calf should receive 1 quart      a difficult or prolonged birth    colostrum from being damaged.
within six hours after birth and     tend to take longer to stand      Colostrum should be thawed
a total of 2 to 3 quarts within      and nurse, resulting in a         slowly, either in a microwave
12 hours of birth. After this time   weak calf that lacks the proper   or in warm water. Here are
the gut begins to “close” and        immunoglobulin protection         two suggested methods:
it becomes more difficult for        necessary to fend off disease     1) Place frozen colostrum and
the calf to absorb the antibodies    threats. These calves may need       its container in warm water
found in the colostrum.              to be tube fed colostrum or          (110°F) and stir every five
At six hours after birth, calves     colostrum substitutes.               minutes. The colostrum
absorbed 66 percent of the                                                should be warmed to 104
immunoglobulins in colostrum,                                             to 110°F.
but at 36 hours after birth          Handling and
calves were able to absorb only      storing colostrum                 2) Thaw colostrum in a
7 percent of immunoglobulins.                                             microwave oven. Set the
                                     Some cows don’t produce an
                                                                          oven at no more than 60
                                     adequate amount of colostrum.
Colostrum contains 22 percent                                             percent power for gentle
                                     The use of colostrum from
solids, compared to 12 percent                                            thawing. Agitate or stir the
                                     other cows or stored colostrum
solids in normal whole cow’s                                              colostrum frequently to
                                     is sometimes necessary to
milk. Much of the extra solid                                             assure even thawing and
                                     ensure that each calf receives
material in colostrum is                                                  warming. This is important
                                     adequate colostrum. For
immunoglobulin, but colostrum                                             since many microwaves do
                                     optimum results, colostrum
is also an important source of                                            not heat material evenly.
                                     should be collected from cows
protein (casein), sugar (lactose),                                        Warm the colostrum to
                                     within 24 hours of calving and
fat, and vitamins A and E.                                                104°F.

How much colostrum                  What about the risk
does a calf need?                   of Johne’s Disease?                   After initial vaccination,
                                                                           a minimum of a yearly
As a general rule of thumb,         Johne’s disease (Myobacterium
a calf should receive 5 to 6        paratuberculosis) can be spread       booster will be required
percent of its body weight          to your herd through infected           to maintain the cow’s
as colostrum within the first       colostrum. If you are using            immune system every
six hours of life. That same        colostrum from another cow           year to protect each calf.
amount should be fed again          as a supplement, be sure              It is very important that
when the calf is about 12 hours     the cow from which you get
                                                                           you follow the labeled
old. Colostrum weighs               it is free of Johne’s disease.
                                                                             directions for every
approximately 8 pounds per          (See NDSU Extension Service
gallon. For an 80-pound calf,       publication V-1209, Johne’s                vaccine you use.
this equates to approximately       Disease in the Beef Herd.)            Different vaccines have
2 quarts (4 pounds) of                                                     different requirements
colostrum per feeding.                                                          to ensure their
                                    Calving Season –                             effectiveness.
What about                          Vaccinations
commercial colostrum                The goal of any vaccination       There are approximately
supplements?                        program in a successful calving   eight viral, 29 bacterial, one
A number of commercial              program focuses on the calf’s     neorickettsial and one protozoal
products that act as colostrum      immune system. As mentioned       diseases that vaccines are
substitutes are available.          in the colostrum management       currently marketed for use in the
Research studies with               section, colostrum is the         United States. Most, when used
these products conducted at         single most important factor      properly, are highly effective, yet
universities indicate that calves   in preventing disease in          it is not economically advisable
that received these products        the very young calf. A good       to vaccinate for all of them.
were healthier than those that      vaccination program utilizes
received no colostrum at all;       the cow’s immune system (via
                                    colostrum) to protect the calf.   Which diseases should
however, they did not receive
                                                                      you vaccinate for?
the level of protection they
                                    Cows should be vaccinated         Those that exist within the local
would if fed frozen, stored
                                    approximately four weeks prior    area. Your veterinarian will be
                                    to anticipated calving date and   able to advise you about the
                                    then again two weeks prior to     specific diseases in your locale.
                                    calving date. This allows the
                                    cow’s immune system to pro-       The most common complaint at
                                    duce the antibodies needed by     calving time is enteric (diarrhea)
                                    the calf. Two doses are recom-    disease. It is generally the result
                                    mended to properly stimulate      of poor sanitation (muddy lots),
                                    the cow’s immune system.

adverse weather conditions          Parasite Control                     General
(cold and wet), and the
mixing of sick and well animals     All adult cows should be treated     Management
(no hospital or recovery pens).     for external parasites (lice).
                                                                         Providing a clean, dry area
Sound management is vital to        Adults cows are fairly resistant
                                                                         for cows that are calving and
a successful calving season.        to internal parasites (worms).
                                                                         cow-calf pairs is critical to
A vaccination program alone         Many herds can benefit from
                                                                         limiting the spread of disease
will not protect your animals.      an internal parasite control
                                                                         in newborn calves. Calves
Even the best vaccine can be        program. This allows maximum
                                                                         born in muddy, damp pens
overpowered by overwhelming         feed efficiency for the cow
                                                                         or calves that nurse udders
numbers of bacteria, viruses,       and decreases feed costs
                                                                         contaminated with fecal
and parasites. The most com-        and maintains the cow’s level
                                                                         material are at increased risk for
mon enteric agents for which        of immunity. One of the best
                                                                         a number of disease conditions.
vaccines are available are rota     times to worm adult cattle is
                                                                         Bedding should be provided
virus, corona virus, Escherichia    at weaning. If the cows are
                                                                         as needed to ensure that the
coli and Salmonella spp.            maintained on dry-lot, they will
                                                                         animals have a clean, dry
                                    not be reinfected until turned
                                                                         area which is free from mud
In a few herds, respiratory         out on grass in the spring.
                                                                         and manure.
disease or even botulism            If the cows are allowed to winter
can be a problem in young           graze, they may reinfect while
calves. Consult your veterinar-     grazing and, depending on the
ian regarding these conditions.     parasite load, may need to be
Often these conditions will         retreated during the winter.
require vaccinating the cow
                                    Very young calves are not
before calving and then
                                    usually adversely affected
vaccinating the calf soon after
calving. This can cause special     by lice and worms. They are

problems. The colostrum the         adversely affected by coccidia,
calf receives protects it from      cryptosporidia, and giardia.
infectious agents, but it will      These internal parasites cause
also inactivate a vaccine.          diarrhea. They are usually
If you vaccinate a young calf,      associated with poor sanitation,
you may have to re-vaccinate        wet environment, and mixing
the calf at least once and          ill and well animals in the
maybe more until the calf is six    same pen. There are no
months old. It is best to involve   vaccines effective against
your veterinarian if considering    these pathogens. There are
this type of program.               medications available to treat
                                    coccidia and giardia, but there is
                                    no medication effective against
                                    cryptosporidia. Again, consult
                                    your veterinarian regarding
                                    management of these illnesses.

                For more information on this and other topics, see:

                   NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating.
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