Thoughts about Blizzard Stressed Calves Back »

This article was written collaboratively by Adele Harty and Dr. Ken Olson.

With the early October blizzard and unexpected death loss, producers are forced to manage calves differently than they would traditionally. One of the areas that this is most obvious is weaning. It seems as though more cows were lost than calves, which means some of those calves have been weaned by the storm, adding stress to an already highly stressed animal. As a result ranchers need to give some extra attention to these calves to ensure their health and nutrition in the coming weeks.

In the area of health, due to the increased stress, orphaned calves are going to be more susceptible to disease; therefore the need to vaccinate becomes greater. Relative to pre-weaning vaccinations, if you have been able to get two doses into the calves prior to the blizzard, you should be in good shape. If not, give them the first dose as soon as possible. Cortisol (stress hormone) levels increased during the storm. Cortisol reduces response to vaccines. However, cortisol levels have decreased in the calf’s system since the storm, leading to the opportunity for a better immune response to the vaccine. If the first vaccine dose was given before the storm, but has not been boostered yet (2nd dose), go ahead and do this as soon as possible. If pre-weaning vaccinations are something that have not been common practice for your ranch, this is a year that they should be given to provide the best opportunity for calves to remain healthy, especially from the viral diseases, such as IBR, BVD, BRSV, and PI3.

Weaning strategies following the blizzard are going to be similar to strategies in a normal year, however, extra attention will need to be given to the calves and close observation for signs of illness. If there are orphans in the herd, it would be a good idea to wean all calves so that the animals are all on the same system and being started on feed at the same time. It helps with the management of the calves if they are all handled together and treated the same.

If you don’t normally hold calves at home after weaning but need to this year, some weaning strategies to consider include:

  • Provide a clean, dry environment. If dry ground is a challenge at this time, provide bedding for the calves to lie in. The pen should also have a windbreak, so they have some protection from the elements.
  • Feed fresh, clean, high quality hay. Once they are eating well, you can provide a small amount of concentrate (2 lbs or less). This is not intended necessarily to promote higher gain, but more to provide a greater level of bunk breaking, which leads to a more valuable calf for the feeder who buys them down the road.
  • Clean, good quality water needs to be readily accessible, even by the smallest calves. You may need to consider using sheep tanks to ensure that all calves have adequate access to water.
  • Be prepared and expect sickness. Monitor calves closely for symptoms including snotty noses, droopy ears, shrunk and off feed, secluded and off in a corner from the rest of the calves, or bloody stools. Have a conversation with your veterinarian to be prepared to provide proper treatment of calves if you start to see symptoms. This is an important time to develop a strong Veterinarian – Client - Patient relationship.
  • Weaning calves can add value, so by bunk breaking them and vaccinating they can be represented as weaned calves and provide an additional profit potential.
  • In order to capitalize on this, all calves need to be eating well for a minimum of two weeks prior to marketing. A longer period is better, but is dependent on feed resources, especially when this may not have been a planned event.

Highly stressed calves from the blizzard can provide some management challenges, but by providing them the proper start to health and nutrition, there is a great opportunity to capitalize on added value.

For additional information or help in addressing your specific weaning needs, please contact Dr. Ken Olson at 605.394.2236 or Adele Harty at 605.394.1722.

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