Farm Ireland

Friday 14 December 2018

Prepare to limit calf losses

Liam Fitzgerald

The management of calving, and the associated activities before and after it, make up the biggest labour demanding period of the year for suckler farmers. Being well organised before calving begins is a good starting point to reduce labour requirements. Having facilities and calving aids ready will also help reduce calving difficulties and disease risks, which, apart from losses in themselves, add greatly to labour input.

The normal recommendation is to have one calving box for every 15 cows. This is where the cow and calf only remain in the box for 1-2 days, as in the dairy herd. If there is a tight calving spread, and you want to leave the cow and calf separated from the herd for three days or more, you will need a higher ratio of calving boxes.

In suckling there is likely to be a proportion of weak or bruised calves, arising from difficult calvings, that need to be kept isolated for several days. The Department of Agriculture's specification (S147) for calving boxes states they should be at least 3.6m x 4m in area. However, temporary pens can be built at 3.6m x 3.6m where a cow and calf have to be kept on their own for a few days. Make sure that separating bars and gates of pens are well secured. Boxes should be thoroughly clean and disinfected before use. Have an adequate supply of straw in store before calving starts. Ideally, cows should be moved to the calving box a day or two before they are due to calve to allow them time to settle in the new surroundings.


With AI you can get a good estimate of calving date. The average gestation length is 287 days (nine months and 17 days) for calves sired by continental bulls (except Belgian Blue) and 281 days (nine months and 10 days) for calves sired by non-continental bulls and Belgian Blues. There is a variation of around 5-6 days for these gestation lengths.

With a stock bull, service dates are not normally available but 280 days after the date the bull was put with the cows will signal the beginning of closer observation.

It is not as easy to check cows for springing on slats as it is in a loose house, so if loose housing is available, cows could be moved there for the final two weeks of pregnancy. You should plan for easy movement of cows between slatted pens, loose sheds and calving boxes. Set up temporary gates or tubular barriers to direct stock movement between locations.

Have the basic calving equipment cleaned and in good working order. This includes three soft nylon ropes -- two for the calf's legs and one to pass over the calf's head when giving assistance -- the calving jack, a bottle of lubricant -- which should be liberally used to assist calving -- and a supply of non-irritant disinfectant. Also, have two clean buckets, teats and the stomach tube. Part-time farmers cannot give the same time to observation and supervision as a full-time person, therefore they might sacrifice something on calf size in order to avoid the more difficult calvings.

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However, there will always be some difficult calvings and good observation is necessary in order to avoid losses. Where the herd size justifies it, the installation of CCTV makes supervision easier and saves time, provided you don't spend too long watching the monitor.


In some cases, when you have sound and vision back at the house, every move the cow makes is noticed. Wired, wireless and phoneline-operated systems are available. Check out the various systems and picture quality before you invest.

Difficult calvings, the birth of weak calves and disease outbreaks lead to a large increase in labour demand. A difficult calving, the birth of a weak calf or one that can't suckle are ways of depriving you of a night's sleep. That might be tolerable if you don't have to be at a job in the morning. If the calf appears healthy, give it beistings by stomach tube, get to bed and hopefully by morning you and the calf will be feeling a lot better. There are indications that it is preferable for the calf to suckle from a teat rather than getting beistings by stomach tube so, if the calf will suckle, use a bottle and teat.

There is evidence that silage feeding in late evening helps to reduce the number of night calvings. It appears that some cows spend the rest of the night feeding and re-chewing rather than the business of calving.

There are few tasks as time-consuming as treating and nursing sick calves. Suitable condition scores, adequate nutrition and good hygiene are a sensible part of pre-calving management.

The use of vaccines on veterinary advice as part of a herd health programme will also contribute to better health and lower labour demand.

Irish Independent