Cold Start to Calving

Tough Calving Season So Far for Cattle Producers

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Wintry weather with lower temperatures during calving season, combined with less-than-ideal weather during the previous months, has put a damper on what is normally an exciting season for cattle producers. (Progressive Farmer file photo by Sam Wirzba)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Last week, Mike Manion was busy trying to keep baby calves alive as winter maintained its icy grip on much of the Midwest. The Hemingford, Nebraska, rancher and cattle feeder was rotating calves into barns and hot boxes and then letting them outside once they were strong enough to survive.

"With it being this cold, we are checking them every two hours," Manion told DTN last Thursday. "The conditions are just making it a little more difficult."

Cattlemen across much of the Midwest and Northern Plains have been facing difficult weather conditions so far during this traditional calving month of March. Cattle with poorer body conditions, in particular, are having issues calving in weather that is more like winter than spring.

And while temperatures have begun to rise somewhat in the lower Midwest this week, the winter weather isn't over yet for some parts of the country, such as South Dakota.

The National Weather Service (NWS) in Rapid City is forecasting a storm on Wednesday with heavy snow of 6 to 12 inches across northeastern Wyoming and western South Dakota with very strong winds. Freezing rain, sleet, rain and snow are also expected in the eastern half of the state.


Brian Vander Ley, a veterinary epidemiologist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Great Plains Veterinary Education Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, said cattle producers from the High Plains to the Corn Belt have faced a perfect storm of uncooperative weather as many try to calve. Wintry weather with lower temperatures during calving season, combined with less-than-ideal weather during the previous months, has put a damper on what is normally an exciting season for cattle producers, he said.

"I think what is happening is calves are being born into really cold weather and getting hypothermia, and cattle with slipping body condition are calving, which is not good," Vander Ley said.

Vander Ley said the tough weather conditions began to affect cattle last summer and fall, whether they were in areas that were too dry or too wet. Many cows entered winter with body condition scores of four or less, and the long wintry weather has only continued to lower their body condition.

Body condition scores (BCS) describe the relative fatness of a cow through the use of a nine-point scale, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension publication "Body Condition Scoring Beef Cows: A Tool for Managing the Nutrition Program for Beef Herds" (…). Cow body condition score is closely related to reproductive efficiency, especially for spring-calving females, and is a more reliable indicator of nutritional status of a cow than is body weight, according to the article.

Cows with a lower body condition score could calve in warmer conditions and have no issues, but current conditions are far from ideal. As a result, cattlemen have been seeing some issues.

"Cattle with lower body condition tend to calve more slowly and have less nutrients in their colostrum milk," Vander Ley said. "Then, the calves are slower because of this and the cold. This would be a failure of positive tU.S. ransfer."

Taylor Grussing, South Dakota State University Extension cow/calf field specialist at the Mitchell Regional Extension Center, said the issue of lower body condition was made worse by the delayed harvest last fall, which in turn delayed cattle grazing cornstalks. Once cattle made it onto cornfields, the stalks were already losing some nutritional value due to all of the moisture. And, in some cases, stalks were already under snow when cattle were turned out, she said.

"Cows didn't put on the weight they would have if they would have been able to graze cornstalks (for a longer period of time)," Grussing said.


Manion said his home area of northwestern Nebraska hasn't seen the amount of snow that has fallen farther to the east, but the area has been battered by cold and brutal winds for most of the winter. While he said some of his cows calved in February, he was busy with anywhere from 10 to 12 calves being born per day last week. He estimated that number could swell to 20 to 30 calves per day this week.

In recent weeks, it has been extremely cold, with temperatures dropping as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit on a few days. Calves born in these conditions have an uphill fight to survive, Manion said.

"We had a cow calve one of those nights, and the calf was only out there seven minutes before I put it in my pickup, and it still had its ears froze," he said.

To combat the cold conditions, he has been keeping a close eye on his cattle, which are at two different locations. Getting some inside -- or, at the very least, out of the wind and into bedding -- has been his main focus, he said.

Farther to the east, Elkhorn, Nebraska, farmer and cattleman Bill Armbrust is also in the midst of calving.

Armbrust said he is used to calving in cold conditions, as he previously calved in January. Recently, he moved his calving season to mid-February and March. As a seedstock producer, he said he tries to set his calving season up to sequence well with the needs of commercial producers' needs.

Armbrust said calving in January was a lot like calving in the extremely cold weather seen in recent weeks across the Midwest: It's too cold, with nearly every calf needing to spend some time inside or near a heater to prevent frozen ears, tails and hooves, he said.

"I like calving in February, as it's a bit warmer and little mud," Armbrust said. "This is why I could move away from January calves."


Vander Ley said that, at this point, producers have limited options to improve their situation. Obviously, no one has control of the weather, and cattle with an already lower body condition score can't be improved immediately. However, there are some strategies cattle producers can still employ, he said.

There are many different feeds that can be fed to cattle to get them the nutrients they need and improve their body scores. The price of many commodities are on the low side, so feeding grains such as corn could be feasible, he said.

"Those cows need a lot of extra feed," Vander Ley said.

Grussing said cattle producers can begin to improve the body score of their cattle, but it will take some time and some additional feed sources. Most of the energy late in pregnancy goes to calf growth, as 60% of fetal growth occurs in the last two months, she said.

It can take 30 days to increase a body condition score by half a point (from a score of 4 to 4 1/2, for example), she said.

Bedding is an important tool in keeping calves warm, but it also presents some possible disease threats.

Vander Ley said producers should try to calve in new pastures or pens to prevent the spread of disease. Or, if cattle are calving inside, producers should clean up old bedding before introducing more cattle to the area. Failure to do this may lead to diseases such as scours (calf diarrhea), he said.

Grussing said other practices such as applying limestone to the soil of the calving area can also help. This will take the moisture out of the soil and allow it to dry out.


Armbrust said he's concerned about both the short-term and long-term effects the cold weather will have on calves born now. Issues with calf health may be short term. But, longer term, there could be some negative effects on feed performance of all calves, especially those destined to become replacement heifers, he said.

There is also some concern about the effects of weather stress on cows being bred in the spring, as well as on bulls.

Vander Ley said cattle should be on "an inclining plain of nutrition" as they enter the breeding season. If cattle aren't gaining weight or are thin, then pregnancy rates will be lower. Producers face a tough decision: Either have more open cows come next winter, or wean calves born earlier this year to make sure cattle can cycle to get bred, he said.

Grussing said bulls also need to be checked for signs of frostbite, a concern after the extreme cold much of cattle country saw this winter. Bulls that have frostbitten testicles can take around 60 days to produce sperm cells again, she said.

"If you think you have bulls with damage, have them tested," Grussing said.

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Russ Quinn