Veterinarian’s Corner: Maternity Care Matters to Cow and Calf – Dr. Owen Mickley, Vita Plus

Posted on October 25, 2017 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Owen Mickley, Vita Plus dairy specialist
The maternity pen is the place for new beginnings for the cow and calf.  This is a critical phase for both animals, and a high-stress period for the cow.  We can help her be more productive by ensuring her transition into lactation is smooth.  That’s why it’s good to review our maternity protocols from time to time.

Understanding the tendencies of your herd is important.  Many farms tend to have a large variation in “average” calvings per week and the actual number of calvings during certain seasons.  High-intensity calving times tend to stress our maternity systems and adjustments need to be made.

First, it is worth reviewing key items in the calving process.  The average gestation period (pregnancy) is 280 days for a Holstein having a single calf with a range of 262 to 296 days.  Seventy-five percent of single calves are born between 275 and 285 days.  Heifers will calve, on average, two to three days earlier than a cow and twins tend to arrive about one week early.  Individual dam and sire influences also affect gestation length.  Some regions show seasonal differences in length of gestation where cows tend to calve early during the summer.  These early summer calvings can vary by two to seven days.

The exact timing of calving is triggered by the fetus.  A cortisol (stress hormone) surge by the calf begins activating all the hormonal pathways in the calf and the cow to prepare and start the calving process.

As the time for calving nears, cows tend to seek out dry, soft and sheltered places.  Some cows also tend to seek isolation, but our typical facilities today don’t allow this.  Active ongoing research aims to figure out how these features can be incorporated practically into our management.

Typical guidelines for the calving area are to use straw (10 inches deep) or sand bedding.  Keep these areas as clean, dry, and well-ventilated as possible.  A minimum of 175 square feet of calving space is needed for just-in-time calving pens and a minimum of 100 square feet of space for pack pens.

Maternity areas need to be closely and frequently monitored.  This creates a dilemma as we want intensive monitoring, but need to keep the maternity area as quiet and undisturbed as possible.  Disturbing a cow in labor can cause her to pause and this lengthens the time of labor.  This increases risk of still birth and dystocia.  It’s critical to train staff to closely monitor yet not disturb cows.  Simple items, such as placing a curtain on calving pen gates can help limit outside distractions to cows in labor, can be beneficial.  In the event we may need to assist a cow in labor, it is a must to have proper facilities close by.

Typically, when we think about heat stress, we think about lactating cows.  Heat stress does negatively impact our dry cows and the effects cannot be reversed by cooling during lactation.  Another area of active research centers on the effects of neonatal/early life effects on long-term productivity.  The idea is that environmental factors, such as heat stress, can influence gene expression, which means we have the ability to impact whether or not our replacement herd is able to achieve its full genetic potential.  What the calf experiences in the maternity pens and early life may have more influence on productivity than we realize today.

Category: Animal health
Starting Strong - Calf Care
Transition and reproduction