Still waiting on calves: Manage summer stresses in cow herd

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SALEM, Ohio – Cattlemen across the state are scratching their heads and wondering where things went wrong as some cows in their herds drag out the traditional spring calving season.

Cows in at least 10 herds in Fairfield, Hocking, Pike and Brown counties have been identified as still carrying calves, and Fairfield County extension program assistant Stan Smith is sure there are others everywhere with the same problem.

The problem, he said, is likely attributed to enormous amounts of stress put on cows and bulls last year.

Still waiting. “Cows were calving and then stopped all of a sudden around May 1,” he said.

One herd he’s heard about was divided into three subgroups for breeding. The two groups bred earliest have calved around 90 percent, but at least half of the third group is still without a calf.

The cows have been palpated and are due within the next month, Smith said.

“At this point we’re assuming they were bred later [than originally thought] or maybe the bull went bad,” he said.

Intense heat, such as that seen last July during the breeding season for spring-calving herds, can cause a bull’s sperm production to drop.

It can take up to 60 days for the animal to regenerate enough sperm and energy to get back to breeding, he said.

By then, producers are often taking the bull away from the cows, leaving some not bred.

Whose fault? It’s almost impossible to tell if the current situation is to be blamed on the bull or the cow, Smith said.

Without proper management and help in dealing with stresses, cows can delay cycling – the first heat is normally six to eight weeks after parturition – or abort embryos early, Smith said.

In Ohio’s traditional spring calving herds, that six- to eight-week window occurs during the hottest months of the year.

“We get pastures that aren’t too good, horrendous quality hay and less than outstanding quality feed, and radical weather extremes,” said Smith, whose own herd had some calves aborted last summer.

Smith points to Jeff Fisher, Pike county agriculture agent, as one who summed it up best: “Ohio cows on fescue are not adaptable to Montana winters or Florida summers – especially in the same year!”

Hot snap. “In this hot snap we’ve had over the past few days, we’re lucky that it cools off at night. That definitely helps, but soon it won’t get so cool,” Smith said.

Though he acknowledges there isn’t much producers can do when daytime temperatures soar above 90 degrees, there are steps to take for short-term relief.

The first step is keeping quality feed, forages and plenty of water to the herd. Even when pastures are exhausted, Smith said supplementing with soy hulls or corn can’t hurt. Smith also recommends a good mineral program.

“It might feel expensive, but it’s better than having no calf to market next year,” he said.

Long-term. For more long-term solutions, Smith urges producers to take a look at their breeding program and its expectations. His main recommendation is turning out the herd bull earlier.

“It quits raining in June and July, it gets hot and the pastures are less productive. You’re going to [be breeding back] during a tough time,” he said.

Calving earlier – in the fall or winter – avoids adding breeding stresses to cows at the hottest time of year.

One of the easiest ways for producers to avoid calving-time surprises is to pay special attention to their herds now.

“We start making hay and get busy with other things, figuring the cows are on auto-pilot, but they’re not,” Smith said.

Smith said to watch cows for heat now and all summer long to maximize next spring’s calf crop.

“It will be time well spent to wander out through the pasture and see what’s going on,” he said.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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