Moderation is key to easy births and healthy calves

The way producers manage the nutrition of pregnant dams can impact calves’ birthweights and their ability to thrive. Research indicates there is a correlation between the dam’s nutri-tion during all stages of pregnancy, and the overall health of her calf. Properly managing a cow’s body condition throughout gestation gives the calf and dam tools for success. 

Nutrition During Gestation

Though genetics are the major deciding factor in a calf’s birthweight and other traits, nutrition during gestation also plays a role in birthweight, development, and health throughout a calf’s life. Dams receiving adequate nutrition during the early gestation period possess the proper nutrients to transfer to their developing fetus. The nutrition of the dam in later stages of gestation can affect the development of the fetus’s organs and muscles as well as impact postnatal performance. 

Research indicates calves born to nutrient restricted dams have lower birth weights. A majority of fetal growth occurs during the last two months of gestation. “There is solid evidence that a reduction in energy levels in a cow during her last trimester will modestly decrease birthweight, and the calves may be weaker and slower to suckle,” Beth Kegley, Ph.D., nutrition expert and professor in the University of Arkansas Department of Animal Science, said. 

Long-term Impact 

The modest reduction in birthweight may be an issue, but what may be more concerning is calves born to nutrient restricted dams could have much bigger problems ahead. Thin cows with decreased energy and protein levels produce poorer quality colostrum and less of it. 

Colostrum is crucial to the short-term and long-term health of the calf. “The first 48 hours sets a calf up for success or problems for the rest of its life. That to me that is the thing with a thin cow at calving, yes, the birthweight may be modestly lower, but that cow is not going to make as much or as high of quality colostrum for that calf. That’s the big deal to me,” Kegley said.

Proper nutrition allows the dam to produce plenty of quality colostrum. “Colostrum quali-ty is a huge factor in how that calf performs,” Kegley shared. “There is data in beef cattle that a calf that does not get adequate colostrum has a much higher likelihood of dying as a calf, if it is shipped to a different location for backgrounding it has a much higher likelihood of respiratory disease at that new location and it does poorer in the feedlot.” 

Moderation is Key 

Managing dams’ nutrition to keep them in a moderate body condition throughout pregnancy and beyond is an important factor in having and raising a healthy calf. Cows receiving adequate nutrition are more likely to have quality colostrum, optimal milk production and increased probability of breeding back. 

There continues to be research looking into the impact of what and how much dams consume during gestation and the immediate and future effects on their calves. “We are constantly fine tuning what we know about the cow’s need for nutrients during pregnancy and the long-term effects of different protein compositions and different types of energy,” Kegley added.


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