Calving season: Nutrition is key for a healthy vibrant calf

South Dakota State University Extension


This past fall’s weather was excellent for completing projects that in most years have to wind up by mid-November.  Hopefully those projects included preparations for calving time.  If not, producers may still have some time to turn their minds towards setting up the cow herd for the best possible calf health this calving season. 

There are several areas for which a producer can prepare to help insure as successful a calving season as possible. The top two areas are nutrition and facility preparation. In this article, we will discuss nutrition and the next article will cover facility preparation.

Nutrition during the last trimester of a cow’s pregnancy is critical. Energy, crude protein, and trace minerals are all important.   Protein itself is a crucial nutrient. Protein serves the newborn calf in several different ways:

  • Muscle and nerve development, contributing to calf viability
  • Maintenance of calf body temperature
  • Colostrum development in the cow 

Adequate dietary protein in late gestation affects colostrum production by the cow.  Restriction of nutrients, including protein, during late pregnancy has been shown to significantly decrease the amount of colostrum produced by the cow.   It is also possible that calves born to protein-restricted cows are less able to absorb antibodies from colostrum when compared to calves from mothers with adequate protein intake, according to one study. 

Making sure cows eat two pounds of crude protein per head per day during the last three months of gestation improves the viability of calves, will reduce calving difficulty (dystocia), and will help prevent cold stress in the newborn calf.  Diet restriction will not sufficiently reduce the size of the calf, and has been shown to increase the risk of calving difficulty a due to a weaker cow.  Trace minerals also play an important role for the health of the calf in this stage of pregnancy.  

Paying attention to cow nutrition means a better chance that viable calves will be born without problems, get up and nurse quickly, and a cow that has better colostrum and nutrition for the baby calf.  Right now, producers should take stock of their winter feed supply. Having accurate nutrient analysis of each feed will allow proper nutrient intake and make sure it can be accessed if bad weather conditions come up later in the winter and early spring.  A discussion of cow nutrition with an extension cow/calf field specialist or veterinarian will help a great deal as winter feeding progresses.

Source: Heather Larson

North Dakota Stockmen's Association * 407 S. 2nd St. * Bismarck, ND 58504 * 701-223-2522 *