The last 60-90 days before calving are arguably the most critical period on a beef operation. The old cliché, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” would apply here.
Cows undergo intense changes in late gestation. In the final 90 days, cows experience mammary development, colostrum antibody production and growing approximately 75% of their calf. To put this into perspective, a calf weighs roughly 65-90 lbs. at birth. That means the calf develops 48-67 lbs. in the last 90 days.
Body condition, nutrition and vaccinations can all impact this delicate time of development and have lasting effects on the success of a calf crop for generations. Below are four key areas to focus on before calving to set your herd up for success.
Cow body condition before calving
Late gestation is the last opportunity to add body condition relatively easily before the intense energy demands of lactation kick in.
Research shows that cows need to gain at least 100 lbs. in body weight during late gestation to accommodate tissue growth of the calf without losing body condition.
If cows are severely restricted on nutrients, eventually they will stop supplying nutrients to the fetus and save themselves. More commonly, during a mild or moderate drought, the cows will maintain pregnancy but lose significant body condition to save their calf.
This can result in possible calf mortality. Calves become underdeveloped, resulting in lower immune function, growth, or carcass development issues, which can plague the animal throughout its life. Additionally, if heifers are kept from a nutrient-restricted cow, this can influence their future calves. That’s three generations of a herd that could be impacted.
Ideally, cows should have a body condition score (BCS) of 5 or better at calving. These cows will cycle faster after birth, have increased pregnancy rates, and calve in a tighter window.
Research from the University of Idaho shows that cows with a BCS of 4 or lower had a 9-29% lower pregnancy rate than cows calving at a BCS of 5 or greater. However, cows that are over-conditioned with a BCS of 7 or more can have an increased risk of dystocia (birth challenges) and lower quality and quantity of colostrum.
“Ultimately, the cow status and calf status are the same. Keep the cow healthy and in good body condition, and you’ll likely have a healthy calf,” says Dr. Jeff Hill, Ralco Ruminant Nutritionist.
For help scoring your cattle, online charts and visuals can help identify where your cattle are and where they need to be before calving.
Cow nutrition prior to calving
In late gestation, cow energy requirements ramp up by 25% and protein needs by 10%. Mineral requirements of the cow increase as well.
The cow’s demand for macronutrients such as calcium and phosphorus increases because of fetal growth. In addition, higher levels of copper, selenium, zinc, and vitamins A and D are needed for the proper fetal body and immune system.
“It’s best to feed a breeder mineral during late gestation. While this seems too early, it’s actually perfect timing. A high-quality breeder mineral should be fed 60-90 days before calving. More accurately, we should probably call this mineral a calving mineral,” said Dr. Hill.
Feeding a breeding mineral during late gestation will ensure the cow has all the needed micronutrients to build high-quality colostrum, a healthy calf and a successful breeding season.
Fetal programming in cattle
If nutrient requirements are not met during gestation, a concept called fetal programming can be affected.
Fetal programming is the theory that cattle management and nutrition may cause permanent effects on the fetus and have long-term consequences for the unborn calf. Periods of limited nutrition can cause reduced weaning weights, decreased immune response, lower carcass weights, lower fertility and even poor beef tenderness and meat quality at market.
In late gestation, the unborn calf draws a vast amount of nutrients from the cow as it develops muscle, fat, organs and carcass characteristics. If nutrient restriction occurs due to drought, poor quality grass, cold stress, etc., the cow will eventually have a restricted amount of nutrients she can provide to the fetus. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to high calf mortality. In the second worst-case scenario, calves will have lower birth weights and likely suffer from chronic illness.
Nutrient-restricted calves can impact an operation generationally. Studies show that a nutrient-restricted cow can affect those calves’ daughters, grand and great-granddaughters. Still, more research needs to be done to document the long-term impact on profitability and performance.
To prevent nutrient restriction, protein supplement and mineral supplementation should be given throughout gestation, especially during the last 60-90 days, to ensure cows meet their high demand for nutrients as they develop their calf.
Learn more about fetal programming in this webinar presented by Dr. Jennifer Young, Ralco Ruminant Nutritionist.
Vaccinations prior to calving
Calves are born without a fully developed immune system to protect them from disease. That’s why colostrum is critical. By drinking colostrum, calves receive passive immunity from the cow. Strategic vaccinations pre-calving can increase the protective antibodies that will pass to the calf through colostrum.
It’s important to note that cows begin pulling antibodies from the blood and storing them in their mammary tissue 3-5 weeks before calving. Talk to your vet about what vaccinations are best to help prevent scours and increase antibody transfer to calves.
Enhancing colostrum quality before calving
Body condition, vaccinations and proper nutrition will all help improve colostrum quality to the calf. Additionally, yeast cell wall products can help enhance the quality of colostrum even more.
Yeast cell wall products such as Ralco’s IntegraMOS are designed to upregulate the immune system before calving with beta-glucans and reduce enteric pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella with Mannan-Oligosaccharides (MOS – yeast cell wall). E. coli and Salmonella bacteria are common causes of calf scours.
Enhance immune response that helps improve the quality of colostrum from the cow.
Improve the quality of colostrum to get calves off to a strong start.
Reduce pathogen load by blocking receptor sites and not allowing pathogens to get attached to the gut and cause damage.
Improve environmental hygiene, which helps reduce the incidence of diarrhea, scours and enteritis in newborn calves.
A high-quality mineral can also help improve colostrum quality. Higher levels of trace minerals and vitamins are needed during late gestation but generally are not passed in the milk or colostrum. Essentially, the calf’s mineral status is whatever the cow’s mineral status was when it was born.
One exception to mineral pass-through in milk is selenium. In the right form, selenium can be passed in the milk and is very important as calves are often deficient at birth. While inorganic selenium cannot be transferred in milk, selenomethionine commonly provided in selenium yeast can. Make sure the mineral you’re feeding contains a good source of selenium yeast.
Keep in mind that most calves won’t consume mineral until 100 days old. However, providing a well-balanced, high-quality mineral will encourage calves to start consuming it earlier and ultimately be more beneficial in helping replenish their reserves since birth.
Overall, using these tactics to increase the quality of your cows’ colostrum will improve calves' gut integrity, which promotes more efficient feed absorption, gain and health later in life.
Let Ralco help get your cows ready for calving
For the last 51 years, Ralco has been helping beef producers use natural products to achieve more predictable production and greater profit. As a third-generation family business, we understand the importance of helping multi-generational farms thrive.
Let Ralco help you get your cows ready for calving.
Schedule a FREE consultation with a ruminant nutritionist to get your cows ready for calving by calling 507-337-6916 or emailing RuminantHelp@RalcoAgriculture.com
Moriel, Philipe.“Fetal Programming: Cow Nutrition and Its Effects on Calf Performance: NC State Extension Publications.” NC State State Extension Publications, NC State, 26 Feb. 2016
Hall, John B. “Management in Late Gestation Is Important to Two Calf Crops.” Extension Beef Cattle University of Idaho, University of Idaho,15 Jan. 2006
“Pre-Calving Vaccinations for Pregnant Cows.” Drovers, 4 Jan. 2016.