Feeding Management Reduces Weak Calves
Calving season comes with less stress when calves are born with abundant vigor.
“The aggressive calf that actively seeks the first nursing of colosturm is a
welcome sight,” says Karl Hoppe, the North Dakota State University Extension
Service’s area livestock systems specialist at the Carrington Research Extension
Some calves are born weak, possibly unable to strand, or lack 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.
Weak calves can result from disease but usually not immediately after birth.
However, placental infections, such as fungal infections from moldy feed, can
lead to a reduced nutrient flow to the unborn calf. While this usually leads to
smaller calves at birth, it can explain some weak calves.
“Good feeding management that provides good, balanced nutrition to the cow can
help prevent weak calf syndrome,” Hoppe says. “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
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