Often during calving season, we may see weak calves — possibly unable to stand, or lacking the energy to nurse. With assistance from the producer, such as helping the calf nurse or providing it with another source of colostrum, and taking the calf to a warmer place (pickup cab, barn, or calf heater), the calf may survive.
Why do we get weak calves? Weak calves can result from disease but usually not immediately after birth. It could come down to how well we fed the mother.
“Good feeding management that provides good, balanced nutrition to the cow can help prevent weak calf syndrome,” said Karl Hoppe, the North Dakota State University Extension Service’s area livestock systems specialist at the Carrington Research Extension Center. “Weak calf syndrome is associated with reduced nutrition to the mother, and cows show reduced body condition.”
Cows with a body condition score of 3 or 4 would have more incidences of weak calf syndrome than cows with more body fat, he notes. The lack of body fat isn’t the only issue involved, although it is a good physical sign to observe.
Adequate protein in the ration for the pregnant cow may help. A study at the University of Idaho found fewer cases of weak calf syndrome when the mothers were fed a higher level of protein 60 days before calving.
The researchers reported that cows receiving late-gestation rations with more than 10 percent crude protein had offspring with a 0.6 percent incidence of weak calf syndrome, while cows receiving rations with less than 10 percent crude protein had calves with an 8.5 percent incidence of weak calf syndrome.
“When protein content in feeds is low, it indicates other nutrients also may be less than required,” Hoppe says. “These nutrients include energy, calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, and selenium, as well as other minerals and vitamins.”
He encourages producers to provide a vitamin and mineral supplement to the pregnant cows because managing rations for increased weight gain (or avoiding weight loss) with extra protein and energy will help.
Weather stress also can contribute to weak calf syndrome. A healthy, well-conditioned cow fed a balanced ration still can give birth to a weak calf in poor weather conditions. Windbreaks, bedding, and barns can help offset some weather stress.
Although well-fed cows in good body condition seem to have fewer problems with weak calves, some producers fear calves will be too big at birth and have dystocia, or a difficult birth, when the cows are fed well.
“Usually, that’s not a problem because a well-fed cow can expel the calf quickly and less mortality is observed,” Hoppe says. “If calf size is a consideration, look for bulls with calving ease traits to solve the problem. Don’t do it with inadequate feed.”