Calving in peace and quiet

The number of live-born calves from cows increases. Not only breeding has contributed to this result, also improved management promoting stress-free calving. The right sire choice, great feed and optimal care in the period around calving ensure a smooth start of cow and calf. Below some tips.

he period of calving is one of the times in the life of a milk cow that she is most vulnerable. When calving goes easy, the cow will start producing quickly and the lactation will be problem-free. Complications around the birth often are a precursor of more problems. A slow birth, for example, makes that the connection between the uterus and the outside world is open for too long. Harmful bacteria can enter, which increases the risks of retained placenta, white lining and uteritis. That means lower production, higher risk of metabolic diseases and fertility  problems. So, a live-born, healthy calf is a prerequisite for a smooth start. In recent years, the situation has continuously improved, according to the Animal Evaluation Unit (AEU) of CRV. Figures from management systems of Dutch dairymen show a decrease of the calving problems. For heifers, the percentage of difficult births is around 7 percent, for older cows that is 4 percent. This progress is especially due to the correct sire choice. Calving ease and maternal calving ease are two breeding values to which dairymen have paid more attention in the last 10 to 15 years. Which was certainly necessary. Farms have become bigger and the individual attention for each calving, or even getting out of bed at night for a calving cow, has become a lot more difficult. By including calving ease and maternal CE in their sire selection, dairymen are choosing as well for their own convenience on the work floor.

Preventing stress

An import point of attention with respect to a problem-free calving is stress. With cows and heifers that experience stress, the birth process proceeds more slowly. The blood doesn’t flow to the uterus, but to other parts of the body which are necessary for fighting or fleeing. Working quietly and being patient are important points of advice. The process of the uterus opening up will take all the time the cow needs. Be patient as long as the birth progresses. Offering help when the cow doesn’t yet have full dilatation, could in fact cause a difficult calving with small wounds occurring in the lining of the birthing canal. Which offers bacteria more opportunities. Apart from peace and quiet, keeping a “watchful eye” on the cow is of course important. When the cow is pushing, there should be some movement,otherwise it is time for an examination and possibly action. Much laying down Also the management around calving can help ease the birthing process. Three weeks before up to three weeks after calving, the cows should be able to lay down and eat without restrictions, and experience the least stress possible. Especially laying down is important, research has shown. The percentage of still-born calves is much higher on farms where the cows are laying down on average only 8 hours per twenty-four hours instead of the preferred 14 hours they should be laying down per day. A pen with a straw bedding is for the (almost) calving cow not an unnecessary luxury. Make sure each cow has an area of 10 m2 strewn thickly with straw and spacious feeding places. Overcrowding is fundamentally wrong for cows, and in particular for this group of cows. It would be advantageous, when the cow could stay in contact with her herd mates when she is in the dry-period group or in the calving pen, also when she is in the process of calving.

Quickly eating again

When the calf is born, it is good when the cow can lick it clean, for this will stimulate its respiration and blood flow. After that it is recommendable, however, to take the calf quickly away from the cow to prevent the transmission of diseases, for example of Johne’s disease. Furthermore, it is important for the cow to start eating. Her rumen should be filled as soon as possible with tasty food for highly productive dairy cows. Also buckets with lukewarm water will stimulate the feed intake, and it is something that the newly calved cow will happily drink at that moment. The little “engine” then can start running again for the next productive lactation.

Breeding for less ketosis

Ketosis is an annoying spoilsport during an efficient, high milk production. And yet, on average 11% of the cows get ketosis, with the older cows it is even 24%. By focusing on the breeding value ketosis, dairymen are able to reduce the risk of ketosis.
Ketosis cost-raising

Ketosis is one of the most common metabolic disorders among dairy cattle in the first 60 days after calving. It is the period when the milk production increases, but the cow cannot take in sufficient food for that production yet. It means that she enters a negative energy balance and has to appeal to her body reserves. This in itself is a normal phenomenon with newly calved cows, however, the negative energy balance should not become too negative. In that case, too high quantities of bodily fat should be mobilized and during that process ketone bodies are being produced in the form of acetone and betahydroxybutyric acid. These have a negative effect on the cow’s appetite. Ketosis can be found in particular amongst older cows and can lead to a decrease in milk production and lower protein content in the milk. Due to the decomposition of body fat, the fat content in the milk increases. The probability of other health problems is increasing enormously, think of mastitis, rotation of the abomasum, and decreased fertility. All in all, ketosis can be a considerable cost factor.

Heritability of 20%

Every farm sometimes has cows that suffer from ketosis: The  cow produces less milk, doesn’t eat enough and looks lethargic. Even if the ration is totally fine and the same for each cow, it can still happen that one cow gets ketosis while the other continues in good health. Maybe there are even dairymen who recognize it as a family trait. For ketosisis hereditary, which offers possibilities for improvement through breeding, as the heritability is about 20%. As of December 2014, all bulls at CRV have a breeding value for ketosis. A score higher than 100 means that the descendants of the bull have less chance of ketosis. Using bulls with a high breeding value, means that the chance of ketosis is considerably reduced. The accompanying table shows that only 11% of the descendants of bulls with a breeding value of 108 or higher get mastitis in the third lactation, while for bulls with a breeding value of 92 or lower it is 37%. In a herd with 100 older cows that amounts to a difference of 26 cows.