Tips for Calving in Cold Weather

by Caitlyn Andrews February 03, 2017

Calving in Cold Weather Tips

If you're expecting newborn calves during the cold winter season, you should prepare now for the potential difficulties the weather can bring. We'll give you some tips below to help you care for your winter calves.

Section 1: Prior to Calving

Be Prepared

    Keep plenty of feed, supplements, bedding and other necessities on hand in case of a blizzard or severe weather. Winter can be unpredictable and deliveries can be delayed. You don’t want to be stuck without the supplies you need when you have a newborn calf on the way.

    Have your veterinarian’s phone number on hand in case there are complications during birth.

    Make a checklist of all the essential supplies you will need to care for your new calf and the dam. Hopefully, calving will go smoothly and you won’t need your emergency supplies such as birthing straps. But, you want to have them on hand in case you do need them.

    Below, you’ll find our “Calving Essentials Checklist”.

    2. Have Colostrum Ready

    Having colostrum ready is an important step in calving. A wet, newborn calf could have a poor chance of survival if it becomes chilled and does not receive enough colostrum. Calves that fail to nurse won't receive colostrum benefits, such as energy for warmth and antibodies for disease protection. A colostrum replacer or frozen colostrum from your own herd can be a lifesaver for a calf who cannot get colostrum from its dam. For more on the benefits of colostrum, see our article on Calf Scours.

    3. Shelter and Bedding

    Use bedding, even outside when possible. It will encourage the dam to lay down, and provide an insulating break from the frozen ground for the newborn calf. Straw is a good option. Sawdust and other shavings can stick to the calf.

    • Outdoor calving: Calving outside in the winter can leave calves susceptible to hypothermia. Calves can easily become hypothermic if covered in heavy, wet snow. If outdoor calving is inevitable, provide shelter such as a wooded area or man-made windbreak. Place bedding on the south side of the windbreak to encourage your cows to use the shelter.
    • Indoor calving: If you have a designated calving area indoors, be sure that it has been thoroughly cleaned. Put lime down after cleaning in the calving barns and keep it freshly bedded.

    4. Monitor the Dam’s Body Condition

    We’ve already stated the importance of colostrum for the newborn calf. You want to make sure the dam looks healthy and her nutritional needs are being met so she can produce adequate colostrum for her calf.

    Body condition of the cow is also important for future breed-back.

    Section 2: During Calving

    1. Know the 3 Stages of Normal Calving

    Dystocia is when it becomes difficult, or even impossible, for the calf to be delivered without assistance. But, how do you know when the cow needs assistance? Knowing what a normal delivery entails will help you recognize dystocia.

    The 3 Stages of Normal Labor:

    • Stage 1 of Normal Labor: The cervix dilates in the first stage of labor. This stage can last between 1 - 24 hours. It commonly lasts between 2 - 6 hours. You may notice a vaginal discharge. During this stage, cows will often separate themselves from the herd when possible and become restless. The cow likely will not eat or drink.
    • Stage 2 of Normal Labor: Contractions begin in the second stage. The amniotic sac will appear at the vulva. At this point, the calf will begin entering the birth canal. In a normal, healthy delivery the cow will be able to give birth without assistance. A good rule of thumb: Once the amniotic sac appears the cow should deliver within 2 hours.
    • Stage 3 of Normal Labor: After the calf has been delivered, the cow will pass her placenta. This generally occurs within 8 hours after delivery. If the afterbirth does not pass after 12 hours it may be retained. It is generally not recommended to remove it manually. Monitor the cow closely for fever. Retained placentas may cause infection. Consult your vet when necessary. The dam may need antibiotics.

    If you aren't experienced with delivering calves you should be ready to defer to someone who is. Speak with someone that has experience delivering calves in advance. Have your vet on call in case of emergency.

    2. Recognizing When Your Cow Needs Assistance with Delivery

    You know the stages of a normal birth. So, what signals should you look for that the cow needs assistance?

    Once the amniotic sac is visible, the cow should be making visible progress every 20 or 30 minutes in her second stage of labor. A cow with a twisted uterus, calf in the wrong position or other difficulty blocking delivery will often walk around with her tail up and extended. She may even look like she is frequently trying to urinate. If this behavior persists for several hours and she doesn't seem to be making progress, intervention could be necessary. The cow will need to be examined.

    Restrain the cow using a chute and headgate before proceeding with the examination. Proper sanitation is crucial at this stage. Clean the vulva with mild soap and water. Always wear clean, plastic OB gloves to protect against infections.

    When you examine the cow, the vulva should be relaxed and free from obstructions. The cervix should also be relaxed and dilated enough for the calf to pass through. There should not be any band marking the border between the birth canal and the uterus. Determine the position and size of the calf. The calf should have both front legs extended with the head following and facing forward. In a normal delivery, the calf will be in a "diving" position.

    Do not attempt to deliver a calf in the incorrect position. The position must be corrected first. Attempting to deliver a calf in an abnormal position could cause severe damage to its dam. 

    If the calf is in a normal position and the cow is dilated, but no progress is being made, then it is likely that there is a disproportion.

    At any time, if you do not know what to do to help the calf during a difficult pregnancy, or if you have any questions, contact your vet. Do not wait too long thinking that the cow will work it out herself. You could lose the calf.

    The American Highland Cattle Association has a great resource for determining when to call your vet during calving.

    3. Equipment for Emergencies

    It pays to have clean calving straps on hand in case of an emergency. Opt for nylon straps instead of chains. Chains can cause injury.

    Refer to the checklist you made before calving and know where all of your emergency supplies are before calving begins.

    Section 3: After Calving

    1. Post Birth Care

    The importance of adequate colostrum for the newborn calf cannot be overstated. Calves need to consume the immunoglobulins in the colostrum for their health and immunity. This article from BEEF Magazine discusses why calves should get colostrum within 6 hours of birth, not 24 hours.

    Make sure the calf is nursing and if not, provide the colostrum replacer or frozen colostrum as needed. The article above recommends 2 quarts of colostrum by 2 hours of age, followed by another 2 quarts at 6 hours of age. Assist the calf in nursing if it needs help.

    Dip the navel in a navel dip, iodine or chlorhexidine to minimize infections. Some producers will give a Vitamin B Complex shot to get the calf's growth and immune system off to a good start.

    2. Tagging Calves

    If you are tagging your calves you might not want to do so immediately. During the winter, the ear can freeze around the tag. Wait about a week to tag to prevent this. In extreme cold, you can prevent ears from freezing by using duct tape to pin the ear tips back against the calf's neck.

    3. Calf Jackets

      Calf jackets can be useful when keeping calves under 3 weeks of age warm and dry. You should be careful using calf jackets if temperatures are fluctuating. Check to make sure that the calf isn't sweating beneath the jacket during the day. This can cause chills to develop overnight.

      Calving Essentials Check List

      No matter what the time of year, there are some essentials you should keep around for calving.

      • Halter and rope
      • OB chains or straps
      • Calf puller
      • Disposable long sleeve OB gloves
      • Roll cotton, rags or towels
      • Disinfectant
      • Navel dip, iodine or chlorhexidine
      • Injectable vitamins, vaccines and/or antibiotics (prescribed by your vet where applicable)
      • Ear tags
      • Elastrator rings
      • Colostrum or colostrum replacer, bottle, and nipple
      • Electrolytes
      • Suction bulb for suctioning fluids from a non-breathing calf's nostrils
      • Nasogastric tube and funnel, or esophageal probe feeder
      • OB lube and application bottle
      • Bucket
      • Flashlight
      • Bedding
      • Thermometers
      • Calf sled or cart to bring newborn calf in from the field

      Newborn Calf and Bedding

      Above: Newborn calves benefit from bedding in winter. The bedding acts as insulation between the calf and the cold ground. Photo By: Fourrure

      Final Thoughts on Calving in the Winter

      Whether you're expecting your first calf or you've been around a cattle operation your entire life, the most important thing you can do for the calving season is to be prepared. Follow the tips above, stock up on supplies such as colostrum, and be ready to call for help if you need it. Good luck this calving season!



      Caitlyn Andrews
      Caitlyn Andrews

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