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Calving Management

Calving and Calf Care on Dairy Farms

Julie Severidt DVM
Heather Hirst DVM MS
David Van Metre DVM MS
Frank Garry DVM MS

In the dairy industry, where the primary revenue source is milk production and sale, calf delivery and newborn calf management are undervalued as areas of concern. The problem of dystocia has been almost ignored. Very few dairy producers incorporate breeding strategies to decrease dystocia occurrence, or have delivery management and newborn calf management protocols that specifically address the problem. Despite, or perhaps as a result of, the inattention the dairy industry has paid to calving difficulty, the rate of dystocia in dairy cattle animals is higher than in beef cattle. A national survey of dairies reported in 1994 that 18% of all deliveries of heifer calves required assistance, while the rate of dystocia delivery in first lactation animals was 32%. For comparison, the 1997 national survey of beef cow/calf operations reported that 17% of beef heifers and 3% of beef cows experienced dystocia. In a study performed here at Colorado State University by the Integrated Livestock Management program, local dairies were evaluated for the occurrence of dystocia and its effects on calves and dams. Dystocia rates on these dairies ranged from 30 to 40%, and more than 50% of first calf heifers required delivery assistance. Heifer calves born in dystocia had a 3 to 24 fold increased likelihood to die at birth, a 1.5 times greater likelihood to get sick before weaning, and an almost 2 fold greater death rate by the time of weaning.

The impacts of dystocia in dairy animals will logically include increased death and disease in calves, reduced productivity in the dams, increased disease in the dams, and the economic impacts that accrue from increased treatment costs, reduced calf performance, and reduced reproductive efficiency.