This week showed the first hint of winter for many across the Northern Plains as the first snowfall hit the ground. With winter’s icy grip just around the corner, ranchers are busy preparing for the harsh, adverse weather that the season is notorious for. A primary concern for cattlemen is maintaining animal health during the cold winter months. For the majority of ranchers, the calves have been weaned and have filled the feedyard, creating a load of chores and worries.

So what are the proactive steps cattlemen should take to maintain optimal animal health in their feeder calves, post-weaning? For Terry Hendrix, DMV, of Artesian Veterinary Clinic in Artesian, SD, it begins and ends with the mama cow.

“If you want a healthy calf after weaning, you have got to think about the pregnant cow planning to calve this spring,” said Hendrix. “The first 12 hours of a calf’s life will determine their overall health and performance throughout their entire life. I can’t stress that enough.”

While Hendrix has plenty of advice in order to avoid sick calves in the feedlot, he strongly urges cattlemen to think about the mama cow to avoid health problems in the upcoming year. Cattlemen shouldn’t try to reduce input costs by ignoring the needs of the cowherd, and Hendrix warns that this practice will cost cattlemen in the end.

The following are Hendrix’ top five tips for taking care of the cow and raising a healthy calf.

1. Take care of the cowherd

For a healthy calf, take note of your mama cows, maintaining body condition scores (BCS) and meeting nutritional requirements for the cow.

“Maintain the cow’s BCS, so that when she calves, she is at a 5 or 6,” advised Hendrix. “This will ensure that she can provide optimal colostrum for the calf at birth. Also consider vaccinated with a modified-live-virus to prevent pneumonia and scours, or you can administer a dead virus when you preg-check.”

Hendrix said that it’s important to have a forage analysis and take stock of how much forage you have on hand. Know the average weight of your cows and feed accordingly.

2. Preg-checking is key

Hendrix strongly advised cattlemen to give pregnancy-examinations to the cowherd to tighten the length of the calving season and pinpoint the unproductive cows.

“The benefits of preg-checking are numerous,” said Hendrix. “Not only does it identify the open and late cows, but it gives the producer a time to examine the BCS of the cows and sort out the low producers and the mama cows with poor udders.”

Hendrix suggested that cattlemen keep accurate records of expected calving dates, sorting out the cows into groups.

“Manage your calving season using the Sand Hills Technique,” said Hendrix. “This works in a way so that older calves are sorted away from brand new babies. Keeping separate age groups as calves are born eliminates the rippling effect of spreading disease.”

3. Building immunity, preventing disease

At birth, cholesterol immunity can make all the difference in the calf’s overall health throughout its lifetime.

“You want a healthy calf at weaning time?” asked Hendrix. “Take a look at what’s happening with the calf at birth. Did it get up and suck right away? The first 12 hours are a critical time in a calf’s life, and these first few hours will really reflect on the performance of the calf.”

Once the calf is up and running, Hendrix said it’s time to think about boosters and vaccines.

“I recommend that folks give two rounds of vaccinations prior to weaning,” said Hendrix. “The calves should be dewormed, both in the spring and at weaning. Give a booster at weaning. Building immunity is an important factor for maintaining post-weaning health.”

4. Eliminating weaning stress

“Of course, studies show that fence-line weaning is the most beneficial way to eliminate stress,” said Hendrix. “However, studies show that this practice doesn’t have a significant impact on animal health.”

Another weaning method is to feed the cow-calf pairs together in the pen that the calves will continue to occupy post-weaning. According to Hendrix, this method allows for the rancher to simply pull the mama cows from the pen, and the calves are already used to their surroundings.

“Calves are notorious for pacing the pens after weaning,” said Hendrix. “Make sure you walk through the pens regularly, so the calves get used to having people around. Keep an eye out for a calf that doesn’t come up to the bunk; the calf will need individual antibiotic treatment.

“Consider using CTC crumbles in any form 7-10 days after weaning,” adds Hendrix. “Add five mg/lb of feed for 2-3 days, give half the dose for another three days, and repeat in three weeks. I find this really does the trick.”

5. Feed and environment

Hendrix recommended that cattlemen keep consistency in mind as calves transition into eating at the feed bunks.

“Every year I hear about groups of calves that never find the watering source,” says Hendrix. “Be sure your calves can find the water and it’s a source they are accustomed to using.”

For getting calves on feed, Hendrix advised a slow acclamation process.

“Do not put the creep feeder in the pen,” noted Hendrix. “Give the calves free-choice grass hay and slowly introduce grain into their diets. Don’t try to get them on a heavy ration too quickly, or you will soon have more serious problems. Take it slow and let them get used to their environment.”

With the changing weather, Hendrix said bedding is the cheapest way to keep calves healthy. As always, keep an eye on the calves and identify sick ones as soon as possible.

Follow these five tips and speak with your local veterinarian to develop an animal health plan that will fit the needs of your own operation. By the time winter ices over the countryside, your calves will be healthy and gaining weight and your cowherd will be ready for another successful calving season come spring.