If you’ve been raising cows for any amount of time, you’re bound to experience the loss of a calf. According to experts in the industry, the majority of calf mortality occurs within the first 24 hours of birth. This mortality can be a result of a difficult and prolonged birthing process, severe weather conditions at calving, or other factors such as poor nutrition during the birthing process.
It can be pretty heartbreaking to lose a calf after raising a cow, getting her bred, feeding her through a long winter and anticipating calving, but it happens, and can leave many first timers wondering what to do.
Determine what happened
Immediately after the loss of a calf it’s important to try and best determine the cause of death. This will help you work to prevent future problems and decide what to do with the cow. Oftentimes you won’t know why it happened, but sometimes it’s clear. If a calf was in the birthing canal for more than 30 minutes without any progress, it’s likely that death was a result of oxygen deprivation during the birthing process. If the calf was born quickly but never mustered the strength to get up and nurse, the problem was may have been related to poor nutrition, viral infection or other a vitamin/mineral deficiency. If born during a snowstorm, it could be that the cold conditions prevented the calf from getting up and nursing in time and it died of hypothermia.
Remove the calf
You’ll want to get the dead calf away from the cow sooner rather than later. It can be emotionally difficult to watch a cow mooing over her dead calf trying to encourage it to get up as her swollen udder aches. Find a safe and approved location to dispose of the animal. This will keep from attracting predators to the area and help the cow forget about the loss of the calf.
Check the cow
Look the cow over for signs of health problems related to birthing. The most common medical issue related to a difficult birth is a prolapsed uterus, where part or all of the uterus protrudes out the back of the cow. This is an immediate problem that requires attention. If not treated it can result in the cow bleeding to death. Often a prolapse requires veterinarian attention, but sometimes you can push it back in and sew up with a couple stitches in a pinch. See if the cow delivers the placenta, or afterbirth, which should be completed within 12 hours of giving birth. A retained placenta won’t necessarily kill a cow, but can cause infection and prevent timely rebreeding.
Some people recommend milking the cow after she loses her calf, which may provide some immediate relief, but probably has no long term benefit. After several days without being nursed the cow will dry up and be fine.
Give it time
It can take a while for a cow to get over the loss of a calf. Imagine the hormones going through the animal’s body and the confusion involved with the death of her calf. If can take some time for the cow to get back to feeling normal.
Graft a Calf
If the cow’s health checks out fine, great. But you now have a predicament on your hands. A healthy cow staying on your farm but not raising a calf isn’t much of an asset. In fact, she’s likely a financial liability to the farm. Many farmers try to correct for this problem by grafting an orphaned calf onto the cow that lost her calf. On large ranching operations it can be easier to find a candidate. Some cows will have twins but will only accept one of the two, leaving the second calf to fend for itself. A cow may also die unexpectedly and leave a young calf behind. With some care and patience, you may be able to convince the cow that lost its calf to accept one of these orphans. The process can be as simple as putting the two together in a pen, or catching the cow in a squeeze chute and encouraging the calf to nurse her, repeating the process until the cow allows it freely. It can also be incredibly complex, where some ranchers will skin out the dead calf and drape its hide over the orphan calf, whereupon the cow recognizes her calf’s scent and bonds emotionally to the orphan. No matter how you accomplish it, getting a cow to take an orphan calf can solve two problems at once and be a great way to financially justify keeping both animals on the farm.
Think Big Picture
To run a profitable cow calf operation it’s important to have animals that produce consistently at a low cost with minimal assistance from you. That means a cow that gives birth to a healthy calf each year and raises that calf to weaning time. If a cow demonstrates that it doesn’t have the ability to do this, she needs to be removed from the herd. That’s why it’s important to determine what caused a cow’s calf to die. If the calf died because it was born in the middle of a snow storm or below zero temperature and high winds, there’s a pretty good chance the fault for the calf’s death lies with you, the manager, for improperly timing your breeding and calving seasons. Likewise, if a large percentage of your calves die at birth there’s something in your management that isn’t right. It could be malnutrition, improper mineral supplementation, poor bull selection, etc. But in most cases, a dead calf has at least something to do with the physical, psychological or genetic makeup of the cow, and you don’t want to keep animals like that in your herd. So in most cases with a lost calf, we get rid of the cow, making room for a better performing animal that will increase the overall quality of the herd and the profitability of the farm.