Disinfectant for a calf’s navel stump is very important, Hilton stresses, particularly if calving indoors. “Herds that calve or are housed inside a barn are more at risk for many problems, including respiratory disease, navel ill and scours in baby calves,” Hilton says.

But don’t assume you won’t have problems just because you calve on grass. In addition, some operators with traditionally easy-calving cows can become complacent. That can lead to not being prepared for an emergency.

So make sure you have everything necessary for newborns — elastrator rings if you band bull calves at birth; injectibles like vitamins A, D and E, selenium and vaccines; and ear tags for calf identification, etc. Ear tags may be simply nylon/plastic write-on tags for in-herd ID, or you may want official USDA 840 AIN (Animal Identification Number) tags, which make it easier if calves need a health certificate for interstate transport or other regulatory functions later in life, Callan says.

Here is another point where the “be prepared” motto comes in handy. If you don’t have tags purchased and ready, calves may be a lot harder to catch and tag when they are several days old, he adds.

Callan recommends giving newborn calves vitamins A, D and E, particularly if their mothers were on dry forage before calving, or if pasture quality is poor due to drought.

“Have it ready, and don’t use last year’s bottle that’s been sitting there with dust on the top, and already had multiple needles going into it. Product contaminated with bacteria can result in injection-site infections. In addition, vitamin E preparations have short expiration dates. Injectable vitamins are inexpensive, and it’s best to start with new bottles each calving season,” he says. 

Callan advises having colostrum replacer or frozen colostrum from last year, or planning to obtain colostrum to freeze from early-calving cows. “If you buy a colostrum product, make sure it’s a replacer, not a supplement,” he says, stressing the wide variety in quality.

A colostrum product should have a minimum of 100g of Immunoglobulin G (IgG), an antibody isotype, in each dose. “Ask your veterinarian what to buy,” Hilton says. “There’s huge variation in quality and effectiveness. Make sure you have something with research data behind it.”

Callan says frozen colostrum from one of your own cows is superior to any commercial product. To freeze colostrum, he advises using 1-gal. Ziploc® bags. Collect 1-2 quarts of colostrum from a mature cow after her calf has nursed. It’s best to collect this within six hours of birth.

“Place 1 quart of colostrum in the gallon bag to freeze. This size of bag works better than a smaller one because it has greater surface area when frozen flat, and can be thawed quickly in warm water,” he says.

Plan disease-control program

If you plan to collect and test ear notches on calves for bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) virus, Callan advises doing it at tagging. The ear notches can be stored in separate tubes in the refrigerator or freezer, and then passed on to your veterinarian for BVD testing, Callan says.

Depending on the situation and herd health program, newborn calves might receive clostridial vaccines like perfringens type C and D, or an oral E. coli vaccine. He advises working with your herd health veterinarian to determine if cows should be vaccinated precalving, or the calves vaccinated at birth.

A few packages of electrolytes are also handy in the event of scouring. Your veterinarian can recommend the best products, as quality varies. But if you’re caught shorthanded, Callan says a homemade batch consisting of ½ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. “lite” salt, and ¼ tsp. baking soda can be dissolved in 2 quarts of warm water.

And finally, in case of emergencies, have your veterinarian’s phone number memorized, posted on the wall, or in your cellphone.