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Quick tips on how to reduce calving stress

Navigating Calf Management

This is the fourth and final episode of our ‘Navigating Calf Management’ blog series designed to help UK dairy producers lay early foundations for long and productive lifecycles. This important and complex topic has been broken down into four areas, including:

Episode 1: Colostrum

Episode 2: Environment

Episode 3: Weaning

Episode 4: Calving

Rounding off this series on navigating calf management, this blog provides expert advice on how to reduce stress before, during and after calving.

It is common knowledge that good transition management is essential for a successful lactation, metabolic health and accepting the next pregnancy. Often, the dry period and calving are geared toward the cow and its needs. However, this period is also critical for the calf and their future growth, health and development.

Minimising stress in close-up dry cows

The close-up dry cow period is a critical time for both cow and calf performance. The most vital target during these three weeks is zero stress, which can be achieved through careful planning, specifically to reduce or minimise cow movements.

It is key that we avoid moving cows in their final stages of gestation (one to four days prior to calving) to avoid prolonged calving times and the risk of delivery issues and calving intervention, which can cause unnecessary stress to the unborn calf. It is also a critical factor in maintaining feed intakes during this precious time.

We advise either moving to a “just-in-time” calving area after the second stage of labour or moving to a designated calving area one week prior to calving. Where movement is unavoidable, move cows in pairs, at least, to reduce stress.

Here are some additional tips to reduce stress and maintain feed intakes during the close-up period:

  • Provide at least 85 cm/cow of feed space and 10 cm/cow of freshwater space.
  • Provide fresh feed by feeding daily and pushing up regularly.
  • The shed should be light (150–200 lux) and well-ventilated. You can also look at installing a red light to enable checks during the night without disturbing the cows.
  • Cows in loose housing should have an area of 1 m2 per cow for every 1,000 litres, plus another third for hard standing, feeding/loafing area.
  • Cows in cubicles should be in deep-bedded cubicles that are 127–130 cm wide and 180 cm long with unrestricted lunge space.
  • Ensure bedding is always clean and dry to reduce the risk of bacteria build-up.
  • Cows on grass should have 1 m2 for every 1000 litres. However, the key is to rotate paddocks regularly, avoid overstocking and allow one month before returning cows to the same paddock. Again, moving the calving cows to a “just-in-time” pen or having a designated calving paddock and bringing the cows here a week prior to calving.

Minimising stress during and after calving

Deliveries requiring assistance are common among Holsteins. We can use the 1 to 5 scoring system (Table 1) to record the level of assistance and help individually manage calves in the first few weeks of life. Calves that have experienced difficult births should be watched more carefully and perhaps kept in single pens for longer to monitor growth and intakes. Colostrum management and environmental optimisation still remain key and probably even more vital.

Degree of difficulty

Calving Ease Score

No problem


Slight problem


Needed assistance


Considerable force


Extreme difficulty


Table 1: Calving ease score card

Research from S.R.U.C (Barrier et al. 2021) found that calves delivered with “severe assistance” (score 4–5) are six times more likely to die compared to calves requiring no or little assistance. Furthermore, a “severe” delivery is 1.6 times more at risk of respiratory disease and 1.3 times more at risk of digestive disease compared to a “normal” delivery.

Choice of sire, size at breeding and nutrition during the dry period can all influence calving ease prior to calving. However, it is quick and accurate calving management conducted by one or more well-trained and experienced persons that is essential to reducing stress during calving time.

Observe signs of labour in close-ups:

  • Relaxation and swelling of the vulva.
  • Mucus discharge.
  • Relaxation of pelvic ligaments.
  • General discomfort and isolation behaviours.

Examine signs of progress once in labour:

  • The cow lying on her side.
  • Normal presentation of both front feet first, followed by the head.
  • Ability to slide your hand over the head of the calf comfortably.
  • Continuous progress lasting no longer than 30 minutes to an hour in cows and less than two hours in heifers. Anything outside of this is abnormal progress and will need professional assistance.

Intervene quickly when needed:  

  • Assist with either gloved and lubricated hands, calving ropes or a calving jack.
  • With any intervention, it is essential to be scrupulously hygienic! Using arm-length gloves, cleaning around vulva area and using disinfected and clean equipment.
  • Know when to call the vet: If there is no progress being made within 10–15 minutes of assisting the cow with steady and gentle traction, it is essential to call the vet.

Provide care quickly post-calving:

  • Cows should be offered a bucket of warm water, with or without fresh cow powder, straight after birth.
  • Cows should also be offered some high-energy TMR, such as the milking ration.
  • Colostrum should be milked as soon as possible to ensure the best quality and fed to the calf once the calf is removed.

Minimising stress from pathogen exposure

Dr. Sheila McGuirk from the University of Wisconsin uses the phrase “manure meals” to reference manure or pathogens the calf ingests from the calving pen or dam.

One of Dr. McGuirk’s suggestions for reducing “manure meals” is to remove the calf from the dam and calving environment quickly after birth. However, there are strong arguments for both cow and calf to have some time with each other; for both the dam’s reproductive health and the calf’s breathing and circulation.

Nevertheless, pathogen exposure increases rapidly the longer the calf remains with the dam. Once the calf is standing and walking, the chances of coliform bacteria contamination go up. At this point, it is best the calf is removed. You can provide a clean, disinfected area where the dam can reach the calf to lick and stimulate the calf without the calf being able to lick and suck on the dam’s coat and teat or falling into cow manure.

Another essential area to focus on is navel disinfection immediately after birth. Studies have shown that calves that do not receive navel dipping with 7% iodine have an 11% greater mortality risk. This scales up to a staggering five additional mortalities for every 100 cows. Furthermore, there is a 14% higher rate of pneumonia in calves without navel disinfection compared to those that are disinfected.

Maximising nutrition during the dry period

Nutrition during the dry period is important for maintaining cow health and calf growth and development.

Separate diets should be made for far-off and close-up dry cows. Far-off cow diets should contain less energy and adequate amounts of fibre. Close-up cow diets should contain more metabolizable protein and energy than diets of far-off dry cows. However, they should still contain controlled amounts of both energy and fibre to ensure adequate feed intake after calving. If a herd is not big enough or it is not possible to manage close-up and far-off dry cows separately, dry cows can be managed as one group with a shorter dry period and a negative DCAD diet.

It is also essential to monitor mineral intakes during this time. Key macro-minerals include calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, sodium and potassium. These minerals and their interactions will drive most metabolic issues. In contrast, micro-minerals such as selenium, copper, zinc, cobalt, iodine and manganese are primarily responsible for disease resistance, immunity and reproductive performance.

Look for a mineral that contains Alltech technology such as Sel-Plex® (Selenium yeast) and Bioplex® minerals, chelated forms of micro-minerals that have been shown in research to deliver additional benefits to the calf in-utero during the dry period; improving calf health and growth rates post-birth, with better production and reproduction when they themselves become cows within the herd.

Click here for more tips on how to make the most of feed for the dry cow.

Producers need to constantly think ahead and monitor how things are going, focusing on any issues in the calving and fresh lactation group. If you think you could benefit from a fresh pair of eyes, please contact Imogen Ward, InTouch Feeding Specialist, on 07778 365016.