Preparations for calving should start during the breeding season. Have the elk cows that you plan to breed on a rising level of nutrition. This is very important. Feed them as much as they will eat. If they are gaining weight, conception rates will increase. If possible, turn your cows out into fresh pasture – forage is the best for them.
If pastures are light, feed good hay and maybe some grain. Good quality hay has 19% protein. The only grain that should be fed is oats, and maybe some corn. Feed 6-8 lbs per head per day, or 2-3 lbs if there is adequate pasture.
This is a good time to cull poor performing cows – those that won’t conceive, have a history of birthing problems, or that over-mother. The percentage of cows that calve is the single most important economic factor that determines the profitability of your elk farm.
Since gestation is 245 days, remove breeding bulls (e.g., by November 15) to manage calving time. Cows that calve late usually have more problems. Use bulls that are proven breeders. Do a check on their fertility.
Check your cows in mid-December. Put them on hay with 12-14% protein. Provide supplemental mineral – a pound of pellets several times a week. Do not feed grain after the cows are pregnant.
In February and March, examine your cows. You should be able to see some ribs. They should not be fat. Early winter is a good time to give Vision 8 vaccinations as the immunity is transferred to the calves. It is also a good time to do any TB tests.
Two weeks before calving, increase their feed so they produce adequate milk supplies.
Rotate the location of calving each year. Try and have your cows calve on clean ground. This will do much more for disease prevention that any vaccines.
Group your cows for calving. The ideal number to monitor and tag is about 30 cows. If you know breeding dates, group cows by early calving group and by late calving group. There is an advantage to have calves about the same age. This prevents spread of “bugs” and disease. Have heifers calve in a separate group. This will cause less problems and will reduce the risk of older cows stealing the heifer’s calves.
Cows will walk the fence for ten days to two weeks prior to calving. As calving approaches, cows will walk in earnest or even run. During this time, you need to watch cows closely – at least twice a day or every 4 hours. Do a head count.
Calving problems with elk are not very common but do occur. When it comes to assisting cows with calving problems, know your limits and comfort zone. If you feel you are going to be in over your head, get professional help.
Wait 3 hours before intervention if nothing happens. If parts of the calf are sticking out but nothing is happening, you should intervene sooner. If you have to pull a calf, this will create many new problems. If only the head and one leg is sticking out, there is a guaranteed problem. If only the head is showing, there is a problem. A significant number of elk calves are born backwards.
If you need to pull a calf out, do so without anesthetic. If you do use a drug, reverse both cow and calf. Elk cows will tolerate assistance from people.
Get the cow into a chute if possible. Have all the necessary equipment ready – soft rope, plastic sleeves, etc. – clean and disinfected. Cows will get infections if equipment is not clean. If you have to go into the birth canal, there is a greater risk of infection. Give the cow antibiotics afterwards.
When pulling the calf out, do it by hand, and be gentle. Calves are easily injured. If the calf is difficult to extract, get the help of a vet. Calves come out in an arc; pull down towards the cow’s heels. Do a c-section in an emergency. However, the conception rate after a c-section is only 50%.
After the calf is pulled, put both animals on clean straw. Watch the cow to make sure she accepts the calf. There is no need to hide; the cow knows you are there. If the cow starts licking the calf, she has accepted it. You also need to make sure the calf is nursing. If you are not sure, provide supplemental feedings.
First feedings should be colostrums which is best obtained from an elk cow that has lost its calf. This can be obtained by putting the cow in a chute and milking her with a 60 cc syringe or using a vacuum pump. If you take it slow and easy, the cow won’t kick. Freeze the milk for later use. Elk milk is best, but you can use colostrums from sheep, goat or dairy cow as well.
Feed the calf 4 times a day until you are sure the calf is nursing. If the calf is content, then it is nursing; if it is wandering around, then there is a problem.
Watch for cows with over-mothering syndrome (constantly licking the rectum and eventually destroying the anus). Some sort of cloth protection may be required for the calf, or you may have to bottle-feed it. You may also want to consider culling that cow from your breeding herd to avoid future problems.
Calves drink lot of water. Give them pans of clean water. Also keep the calves away from swamps and mud holes to decrease risk of disease and infection.
Source: Russell Sawchuk from notes taken at a presentation by Dr. Glen Zebarth at the 2002 NAEBA Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada.