Farming Magazine - December, 2012


Beef: December Management Highlights

By Dr. John Comerford

Early winter is one of the times a cow herd can be largely ignored. After all, they're not close to calving, pastures are gone for the year, the calves have been weaned and shipped, and they are just getting some hay every day. It's a good time to fill in some management holes.

Photo courtesy of Jusben/morguefile.

Prepare the calving kit

There is no paycheck in the cow-calf enterprise if a calf is not sold in the fall. It first has to be born and kept alive at the critical time during calving.

  • A heifer pasture alarm clock. Research shows that more than 90 percent of calving difficulties will be found in first-calf heifers.
  • Obstetrical chains and calving equipment. Be sure you know how to use OB chains correctly (including sanitation) before you have to use them.
  • Frozen colostrum. Ingestion of the first milk available after calving is essential to the calf's survival. Newborn calves have very little concentration of serum immunoglobulins at birth, and it has been shown that failure to provide the immunoglobulins through colostrum will result in greater incidence of infectious disease (Gay, 1983). When feeding stored colostrum, thaw it in warm water and do not use a microwave. It will usually take a half-gallon of colostrum to get the best results. If the calf will not nurse a bottle, use a stomach tube. It is absolutely necessary to get colostrum into the calf within 24 hours of birth, preferably 12 hours. Cows can be vaccinated for calf scours prior to calving, but this is a passive immunity dependent on the calf getting a good dose of colostrum.
  • Scours treatments. When no other oral electrolyte rehydration product is available, a "home brew" can be effective. Some examples from a University of Nebraska publication include:

a. 1 can beef consommé, a package of fruit pectin, 2 teaspoons of low-sodium salt, 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 2 quarts of warm water

b. 1 can beef consommé, 3 cans of warm water, 1 tablespoon of baking soda

c. 1 tablespoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon of salt, 8 ounces of Karo syrup, and enough warm water to make 1 gallon of solution

All of these solutions would be fed at 1 quart every three to four hours.

  • Tags and other identification.
  • A sharp knife. Castration is done with male calves in the U.S. for two reasons. The first is the marketing system, which usually does not allow bulls to be graded in the same format as steers and heifers. The second reason is that, unlike most farms in Europe where castration is not necessary in the grading system, cattle are sold off the farm and mixed with cattle from other farms at least once and usually several times before final marketing. Studies have shown that early castration with a knife reduces stress on the young calf more than using rubber bands for castration.
  • Orientation of the herd to calving areas. Calving should be in a dry place. If barns are used, the pens should be cleaned between calvings to prevent the spread of disease, and newborn calves should be isolated from older calves.

Look at the cows

Take a good, critical look at the cows in December to determine what they should look like in March. Body condition at calving will be an important factor in getting them rebred next spring, so thin cows should start receiving some feed now. Cows and heifers should be at no less than 5.5 on the 1-9 condition scale in December. Heifers are particularly important targets to be sure they have adequate condition at calving.

Look for injuries that may have been missed in the fall, particularly injury to eyes and udders. That older cow that is losing condition fast and may be short on some teeth may need some special care. Are replacement heifers gaining weight at the right rate? The critical breeding weight of replacement heifers is based on their frame size and weight, and they should weigh at least 60 to 65 percent of their mature weight at breeding. For most heifers, that means they will gain 1.5 to 1.8 pounds per day after weaning to reach minimum breeding weight. Separate the herd based on the nutritional needs they have - thin cows and heifers in one place and mature cows in acceptable condition in another place (see the Chart and Table 1).

Enough nutrients (feed)

The purpose of feeding cattle is to provide the nutrients they need. All feeds are not created equal for that purpose. While we can easily imagine that a diet of 100 percent corn for a beef cow is not reasonable for cost, it is also not reasonable in the balance of nutrients it would provide. Tables 2 and 3 indicate how hay may differ greatly in the nutrients it provides for the cow.

The results clearly show that there may be a need for supplementation in some cases, but not in all cases. The nutrient most often deficient is energy and not protein. This knowledge is key to wintering cows most effectively and most economically.

Early winter is a time of preparation and planning in the cow-calf enterprise. Use the time effectively to be sure there are more live calves to sell this year and in future years.

Dr. John Comerford is an associate professor of dairy and animal science at Pennsylvania State University.