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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Cow-calf operators should be ‘making a list and checking it twice’

STILLWATER, Okla. – June is calling, and that means cow-calf operators should have a good idea how not to repeat any challenges associated with the past breeding season during the next go-round.

Call it “Christmas in June” because producers should be making their list and checking it twice, reminds Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension emeritus animal scientist and editor of OSU’s Cow-Calf Corner newsletter.

The first step is to list the dead calves. Hopefully, a producer’s cattle are in a record system that will provide the information.

“If not, grab a piece of paper and pencil and list the calves,” Selk said. “Your calving notebook should have the dead calves checked off and a brief notation on what happened to each. Until all the calves are listed, the shock of lost opportunities has not had its full impact.”

Step two: Is there a pattern of problems visible?

Was most of the death loss right at delivery and involved 2-year-old heifers?  This could indicate that sire selection needs to be done more carefully, with attention being paid to Expected Progeny Differences low-birth-weight sires for heifers.

“If it is too late to change sire selection for this year, putting more emphasis on calving-ease sires can be helpful for future calf crops,” Selk said. “Perhaps the heifers were underdeveloped. This could contribute to more calving difficulty than necessary. Do you provide assistance to heifers after they have been in stage II of labor for one hour?”

Was the death loss more prevalent after the calves had reached five days to two weeks of age? This may indicate calf diarrhea or scours is a major concern. Calf scours will be more likely to occur to calves from first-calf heifers.

“Calves that do not receive adequate amounts of colostrum within the first six hours of life are five to six times more likely to die from calf scours,” Selk said. “Calves that are born to thin heifers are weakened at birth and receive less colostrum. This compounds their likelihood of scours. Often, these same calves are born via a difficult delivery which adds to their chances of getting sick and dying.”

If such occurred then the cow-calf operator should reassess the bred heifer growing program to assure the heifers were in a body condition score of six at calving time.

“Also, if calf diarrhea is shown to be a significant cause of loss and expense, it is recommended that a producer visit with his or her large animal veterinarian about other management changes that may help,” Selk said. “Pre-calving vaccinations of the cows may be recommended in some cases.”

Is the same trap or pasture used each year for calving? If so, there may be a buildup of bacteria or viruses contributing to the occurrence of calf diarrhea in that specific location.

“That particular calving pasture may need a rest for the upcoming calving season, plus it is always a good idea to get new calves and their mothers out of the calving pasture as soon as they can be moved comfortably to a new pasture to get them away from other potential calf scour organisms,” Selk said.

In short, thinking through the calving process now and making a list of challenges and potential solutions can help protect the cow-calf operator’s investment in management and related costs designed to ensure animal well-being. The whole point, after all, is to get a healthy live calf on the ground and get the mother back in breeding condition as quickly as possible.

Oklahoma is the nation’s fifth-leading producer of cattle and calves, according to USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service data.


Donald Stotts
DASNR News and Media Relations
Agricultural Communications Services
132 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-4079
Fax: 405-744-5739


Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078