As we climb in the combine every fall, it gets difficult to pay attention to our cattle. Sure, we feed them, check their water and make sure the fences are good, but since we’re human we get in a hurry to get the crop out and tend to not focus as closely on the calves. This means that problems can creep up on us and become big problems before we can fully realize it. Veterinarians jokingly refer to this situation as “combine fever.”
Realistically, as farmers we can only do so many things at once. So if we want to get ahead of combine fever, the best way is to get the cattle ready so they can cruise on autopilot through harvest. The best time to start is right after silage chopping, but if that won’t work it’s better to do what we can a little later than to cross our fingers and hope for the best.
If there’s one thing that makes the most difference in calf health in the fall, it’s preconditioning the calves while they are on the cow. Having the vaccinations, castration and dehorning completed at least a month prior to weaning makes the weaning process less stressful. Even if you don’t plan to wean until after the corn is out, calves that are preconditioned are less apt to get sick when temperatures begin to dip below freezing in late October.
The best option is to vaccinate and castrate before grass turnout. This gives you two advantages.
First, calves that receive a spring pneumonia vaccination have less disease in the summer, making them healthier for pre-weaning vaccination. Therefore, they respond better to shots in the fall and may receive a booster response with this vaccination.
Second, it’s three times faster to give pre-weaning shots if the bulls don’t have to be castrated. The scientific research shows no advantage at waiting to castrate until five months of age versus two months of age or less. If the bulls are already cut, then giving falls shots in the pasture is logistically more feasible.
After settling on a good preconditioning program, our next goal is to look at the timing of weaning. Some producers can simply wait until after the corn is out to wean the calves. Others who calve earlier or those suffering from drought may need to wean prior to harvest.
If this is your situation, it’s best to give the calves time to get a good start after weaning before harvest begins. The first three weeks after weaning are when we see the most challenges in our calves. If we can get through this period prior to corn harvest, then we will have more time to check on those calves every morning and identify those that are sick.
With all this focus on calves, it is very easy to forget about the cows. Cows are tough animals that need little attention. However, we don’t want our gestating cows to run out of mineral during harvest. Let’s face it — cow mineral is probably the last thing on our mind when we’re loading grain wagons.
To stay ahead of this situation, it may be to our advantage to leave lick tubs out during this period rather than loose mineral. The added protein in the lick tub will be advantageous if there’s little rain and little regrowth of cool season grasses. This is because the older grass typically decreases in protein level as it goes dormant over time.
A well-balanced lick tub will also cover the cows’ entire mineral supplemental needs. In this case, don’t go cheap on the lick tub. A herd of cows will eat through a cheap, soft lick tub in a few days. We want these to last for weeks, so to accomplish our goal we need a tub that is hard enough to limit intake to ½ to 1 lb per head per day. Talk with your nutritionist about what options would fit this situation the best.
Though we laugh about the name, combine fever is a real thing that veterinarians see in the fall. The good news is it is preventative. With planning, we can put our cattle on nearly cruise control so we can focus on the primary task at hand, getting the crop out of the field.