Preparation is key to a successful calving season

Date published: 21 September 2023

Richard Gibson CAFRE explores some of the key factors required for a smooth calving period.

Hurdle pens can be easily removed for cleaning and disinfecting.

The start of the calving season is always an anxious time for dairy farmers, cow and calve health issues, disease pressure and also the added strain on farm labour. Preparation is key, we must prepare to succeed at calving with a smooth calving period being the ultimate target on your farm.

Clearly the importance of management of the dry cow is key, with particular emphasis on the period 3 to 4 weeks pre-calving. A high incidence of production diseases such as milk fever, retained cleanings and stomach problems in fresh calved cows can very often be traced back to management of the dry cow, I will look at this area later in the article.

First, focus on the basics!

In terms of equipment, make a list and review if anything needs replaced and there is enough of what is needed. This includes a good calving gate securely fitted, a calving jack in good working order, two sets of clean nylon ropes, buckets, disinfectant, lubricant, two stomach tubes (one for sick calves and one for colostrum management), feeding bottle, iodine, electrolytes, a thermometer, a warming box, calf jacket or infra-red lamp, a box of arm length gloves, standard rubber gloves and access to warm water. Also check in advance if calving cameras and calving sensors are working. A white board is also useful, alongside your equipment, for taking notes like extra feeds or special treatments, this is particularly important if there is several staff members sharing the work during calving. Preparation is the key, have calving pens clean and disinfected prior to start of calving. Use plenty of straw in calving pens to keep young or new born calves warm. An adequately bedded pen is one in which you can kneel down without your knees getting wet. Pens should also be draught free. Don’t forget about your own health during calving, its likely the busiest time on the farm, so be sure to take a rest and organise additional help when needed.

Cow care prior to calving

In the final 3 weeks of the dry period, nutrition and feed space are key. Ideally cows should be housed, and dry cow minerals fed for the 6 weeks pre calving. Also consider vaccines as part of a scour prevention plan.  This can be done in the weeks pre-calving and will boost the anti-bodies against scour which will be passed to the calf in the colostrum afterwards.

Regardless of the system, It is necessary to have adequate feed space for pre-calvers, at least 75 cm per cow and 24 hours/day stress-free access to fresh, palatable feed. Constant availability of fresh, clean water, with adequate water drinker space per cow or one fast drinker per 10 cows is also needed. Overcrowding of the pre-calving group and moving cows close to calving should be avoided wherever possible.  Moving causes stress, delays calving and reduces feed intakes even further. If cows are moved between groups, move in pairs where possible. Cows housed in cubicles need large and comfortable beds (at least 1.3m wide and 1.8m long) with at least 75cm of unobstructed lunge room. Dry cow cubicles should receive similar attention to detail in relation to hygiene as those for the milking herd.

Providing the calve with a good start

Antibodies cannot pass from the cow to the calf during pregnancy, therefore calves are born without any immunity. Calves should be fed 2-3 litres of colostrum within two hours of birth to maximise absorption of antibodies and increase immunity of the calf to help fight potential infectious bacteria and viruses. Ideally colostrum from the calves mother should be fed, or alternatively consider freezing colostrum. Surplus colostrum can be stored for up to one year in a freezer in milk containers or freezer bags at -18°C to -25°C without losing quality. When defrosting, use warm water less than 50°C to thaw slowly as faster thawing at higher temperature or using the microwave will destroy the antibodies in the colostrum.

Farm focus:

Anna Truesdale CAFRE - discusses key preparations with one Co Down dairy farmer Stephen Wallace, Heenandale farm, Seaforde.

Mid-September and Stephen Wallace is just starting to get into the thick of calving his Autumn herd. With nearly 200 cows to calve in the next 3 months, Wallace knows that preparation, organisation, and communication are key to a smooth calving season on his farm.

Having invested in a new, but simple, calf-housing system over the last few years, the farm at Heenandale has managed to overcome a number of issues often faced during a calving season.

Cows have been vaccinated and there are facilities on farm to test and freeze good quality colostrum, full of antibodies for the protection against calf-scours.

The house has been well rested, power hosed and disinfected. Hurdle pens are constructed and waiting to be freshly bedded when needed. Wallace uses hurdle pens to house single calves in the first few days. This, he says, allows the calf the opportunity to learn how to suckle without the threat of bullying from other calves in the group, and allows for a closer eye to be kept on them over the first critical period.

From here, they will move to group pens - which will reduce labour requirement at feeding – where they suckle through a compartmentalised-10-teat-feeder. The gates at the front of the group pens have been modified to allow access to small water troughs and have been designed in such a way that calves aren’t able to bully along the teat feeder once they have finished their share of the milk.

Wallace knows that the calving season can be labour-intensive and has taken steps to ensure the next few months run as smoothly as possible.

Here are a few of Stephens top-tips and must-haves to get ahead during calving.

  • Keeping ropes and calving aids clean and always within reach of the calving pen.
  • Having a good calving gate.
  • Calving cameras.
  • Having a fridge and freezer in the calf-house for colostrum.
  • A washing line for calf coats to dry.
  • Hot water in the calf house.
  • A milk taxi.
  • A whiteboard to easily communicate instructions around feeding.


Attention to detail during the latter part of the dry period and around calving will help prepare the autumn calving cow for her subsequent lactation and minimise potential production and health problems. Aim for a smooth calving season, planning should include a review, not only of nutrition but also accommodation for calving cows and calves. Cow and calve health are paramount during this period with preventative action always better than cure treatments. Cow welfare with a particular emphasis on labour requirements and your own physical health is important during the busy calving period. Time spent servicing equipment, acquiring essential supplies, and developing critical management protocols will pay dividends on your farm.

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