Is it possible to use technology to identify calving cows sooner?

The calving season is just around the corner for many seedstock producers, and producing and weaning live calves are critical to cow-calf profitability.

Problems at this time of year can have significant consequences. The birthing period and the subsequent first few days of life have been shown to be the most hazardous time of a calf’s life.

Some cow-calf producers have already adopted technology to help identify cows that are calving or about to calve. Video systems for herds that are calving in confined systems seem to be the most common technology.

However, those systems require regular monitoring to be effective.

The ideal system would require less intensive monitoring and would send an alert when it identifies a cow about to begin calving. There are also commercial technologies available that use an intravaginal device that warns you when a cow is beginning to calve.

However, there may eventually be other systems that measure cow behaviour to predict calving in cows. A recent paper in the Journal of Animal Science reported on some preliminary results using accelerometers, which measure steps taken, standing and lying time.

Calving difficulty or dystocia has been shown by a number of studies to be a major cause of calf losses in the North American beef industry.

In one extensive study, which involved following more than 13,000 calvings, 69 percent of pre-weaning deaths occurred within the first 96 hours of birth. Almost two-thirds of these losses were directly attributable to dystocia or calving difficulty. Dystocia can directly cause a calf’s death by being too long in the birth canal and resulting in a lack of oxygen. However, calving difficulties also cause indirect losses by increasing the susceptibility of surviving calves to infectious disease. Calves that survive dystocia are 2.4 times more likely to become sick during the first 45 days of life. Other researchers have shown that calves that experience dystocia are 13 times more likely to die within 12 hours of birth.

The National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS), which is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, carries out periodic surveys of various livestock industries in the U.S. In 2007-08, it surveyed cow-calf producers from 24 states about management practices in their herds. Producers reported giving calving assistance to about 11.6 percent of heifers and only 4.3 percent of cows. Only 3.4 percent of heifers and one percent of cows calving required a “hard pull” and 0.5 percent of heifers and 0.1 percent of cows required a caesarean section. This is a significant improvement from a study done 10 years earlier, in which the incidence of calving difficulty in heifers was 17 percent.

Purebred breeders have made great gains in selecting bulls for easy calving, and commercial cow-calf producers have obviously taken advantage of these traits when buying bulls for their herd, if the decreases in calving difficulties shown in the NAHMS study are true.

However, calving problems can still occur. Early and appropriate intervention is the key to dealing with a heifer or cow with calving problems. Early intervention may minimize calf stress and reduce the oxygen deprivation that can occur during the time the calf spends in the birth canal.

A recent paper in the Journal of Animal Science explored the use of new technology to help producers identify cows that are about to calve. The researchers from the University of Missouri used accelerometers and pedometers attached to the left hind fetlock of cows and heifers just before the calving season. This technology has been adopted in some dairy herds as a means of identifying cows in estrus for breeding. This particular research study was exploring whether the technology could be used to identify cows about to calve.

The researchers were able to demonstrate that beef cows about to calve had longer standing times and less lying times on the day they were about to calve. This agrees with previous research in dairy cows that tended to show a similar finding. They were also able to demonstrate that cows had an increase in lying “bouts” in the 24 hours just before calving. The authors of the study suggest that this might be the best behavioural measure that can be used to consistently predict calving, but they caution that more research is necessary.

This type of technology is still in development, but it does show promise. An inexpensive method for remote data collection from these devices needs to be developed before they can be used extensively in commercial settings. In the meantime, most producers will still be monitoring their herds at calving time in a more traditional fashion.

Keeping calves alive for the first critical days of their lives is an important task at calving time. Providing prompt assistance in the event of calving difficulties is critical to getting calves off to a good start.

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