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Setting up our Newborn Devons for Success


Many of us northern tier Devon breeders are in the midst of winter, and it’s hard to think that green grass will ever appear again, but it’s coming!  As I say to my children- we have turned the corner of the year

The majority of income for cattle producers comes from the sale of our calves- whether at weaning, or as bred yearling heifers, or as bulls to other breeders and commercial producers.  The health of each calf is an important consideration in our chances for profit from that calf, and for the heifer’s ability to breed at the appropriate time, or the young bull’s ability to breed successfully during his first and subsequent seasons.

While the second trimester of a cow’s pregnancy has a relatively low nutritional input requirement, a cow’s nutritional needs during the third trimester are significant, and will affect the health of that calf for the rest of its life.   “Research has shown cows that are thin (body condition score of 4 or less) have decreased concentration of immunoglobulins in colostrum compared to cows in body condition score of 5 to 6 (1-9 scale).  Additionally, calves born to very thin cows may be weak and slow to nurse, also reducing the colostrum they consumer and making them more susceptible to disease.”  (“Setting up the Newborn Calf for Success”, Karla Jenkins, Progressive Cattleman, Jan. 2018, p. 34

While the first step to having a pasture full of cows in body condition score 5 or 6 is selecting those previously, January is also a good time to thin the herd and select for those cows that will work for you, the Devon producer, rather than the other way around.  A hard working cow who is thin going into her third trimester might have raised a bang-up bull calf last year, but if she cannot give a strong calf year after year, she is losing money for her producer.  Better a solid, dependable female that gives calf after calf on a 365 day interval than a “one year wonder” who comes up open the following year.

It is difficult and expensive in terms of feed to recover a cow’s condition in mid-winter.  Now is the chance to look over the herd and make selections  


In our area of Montana, our alkaline high-molybdenum soils block absorption of copper, zinc, sulfur, and selenium- all crucial micronutrients for both the developing calf and the breedback health of the mother cow.  We have found good results giving our cows a shot of Multi-Min about a month before the first calf is due in the spring.  It is always better for the cow to nourish her calf- either pre-partum, or through her colostrum and milk- rather than a producer having to catch and dose every calf in the field soon after birth.

Each producer will know their own area’s sufficiencies and insufficiencies in their soils.  This is a good time to consult soils experts, or veterinarians, or get some hay tests done if you have had mineral deficiencies in your calves in the past and want to avoid them this year.


High quality colostrum is the most crucial “passive” immunity gift that can help get a calf off to a healthy start.  (Passive, meaning via an ex-uterine source, rather than through the umbilical cord.)  A calf’s gut closure begins as soon as it has its first meal- whether that is a large meal of colostrum from its mother’s clean udder, or an inadequate feeding from a dirty udder, or milk replacer.  Any meal will initiate gut closure, and “bacteria nursed from a dirty environment, including the udder, can be directly absorbed into the blood and cause severe disease” (Jenkins, p. 35)  While the first 24 hours provides the largest permeability of gut lining to the calf, the gut closure starts with the first meal the calf takes.

Calving in season will mean that calves are born on larger fields, generally on green (or greening in Montana) grass, with each cow free to find her own private space to deliver her offspring.  Winter calving brings larger calves to market in November, but also entails more work with straw-filled barns and/or frequent checks through full calving pens.  Many Western ranchers work hard to make sure that every heifer calves within 2 hours of the start of labor, with the calf nursing within the first hour.  Again, I have found that healthy, well fleshed cows usually deliver strong hungry calves who are ready and able to nurse quickly after birth.

“Calves born following prolonged labor, especially if the calf had to be pulled or removed via caesarian section, are at high risk for failure of passive transfer.” (Jenkins, p. 36)  In that case, it is a good idea to obtain some colostrum from the mother cow by milking her in a chute and tubing or bottle feeding the calf, or by giving the calf some colostrum from another cow in the herd.  I try to always have a few frozen containers of colostrum that I have saved from a previous calving.   The best is from another cow in the same herd, as that colostrum is also adapted to the pathogens of your own farm.  

A third choice would be purchased colostrum from another farm in your area(disease transmission is possible here), and lastly, colostrum supplement.  “Colostrum supplements are relatively safe from disease transmission but typically do not contain high enough concentration of antibody to guarantee passive transfer.”  (Jenkins, p. 36)

A last thing to remember as we consider colostrum and passive immunity is that the cow’s milk has lost its “colostrum quotient” after 14 days.  The calf’s own active immunity must kick in at this point, and calves under late winter stress often show a downturn in health at the 14 day point.  I have had good luck dosing the hardest hit ones with Vitamin C, Echinacea, and several cloves of garlic but that requires time, energy, good corrals and a chute.  It’s far easier to make sure that the cow is in good health going into her last trimester so that she does the job for you.

It is also a good idea to move older calves out of the calving field and into another pasture once they are a few days old.  As they reach the 14 day point and older they will shed more pathogens, which can negatively affect the health of the newborn calves still to come.  This separation of calves by age can reduce the chances of scours in the newborns.  Scours is also often a sign of inadequate calcium from the mother cow.  Again- a good hay test, and the provision of a Calcium source like Redmond Conditioner (add 10-20% table sugar for greater palatability initially in the herd) has helped stave off scours in my Western herd.  Once the calves are 14 days old they are strong enough to be added into the “pairs herd”

1. Actively select for healthy, well built cows that can carry their condition with the feedstuffs that you as the producer choose to feed them.  They should be working for you.  

2. Mother cows are the best caretakers of our annual calf crop.

3. Colostrum, consumed quickly and in quantity, gives the calf the best start once it’s born and on its feet.

Devons Can Do It, Anywhere.

“NebGuideG2293 Health and Management of the Nursing Calf” gives more information on managing the calf through the period prior to weaning, and is a free publication which can be accessed online. (www.exensionpubs.unl.edu)


Written by Jenny Kahrl – Montana Red Devons