Producing healthy calves like
this one is the goal of
researchers at ARS' Fort
Keogh Livestock and Range
Research Laboratory in
Montana. They're currently
studying hormonal and
genetic causes of dystocia,
or calving difficulty.
|As far back as he can remember, Tom
Mott has helped with calving. When he was young, he and his dad would place
bets on which of the Herefords on their Utah ranch would calve first.
"That's how my dad taught me to watch heifers," says Mott.
Heifers are females before they become mothers; after that, they're called
cows. A week or two before they're ready to calve, Mott says, the heifers'
udders will tighten up with milk. Then, as they get ready to calve they will
swish their tails and try to go off by themselves.
Mott's family still runs a ranch, but he now works as a herdsman at
ARS' Fort Keogh Livestock and Range
Research Laboratory (LARRL), in Miles City, Montana.
Once the pregnant heifer goes into labor and lies down, Mott expects a birth
within an hour or two. Otherwise, she's having trouble.
Minutes after giving birth,
a 2-year-old beef cow
attends to her newborn
Calving difficultyor dystociacan cause the death of calves and
cows, increase the susceptibility of calves to disease, and lower weaning
weights. Cows experiencing dystocia produce less milk and rebreed later than
those that give birth more easily. Dystocia costs the U.S. beef and dairy
cattle industries more than $400 million annually.
Heifers are usually bred at 12 to 14 months of age and deliver their first calf
at about 2 years. But cows don't reach their mature size until at least 4
"Breeding them at a young age leads to more calving trouble," says
ARS physiologist Robert A. Bellows. "But the beef and dairy industries
depend on producing calvesthey can't afford to support nonbreeding
females for 4 years before they get any return."
Herdsman Jim Watts lifts
a calf with a weight
scale for a few seconds
while Jim Kessler records
its birth weight.
For nearly 40 years, LARRL researchers have been helping uncover the causes of
calving difficulty and improving the ability of cows to rebreed. Some of their
early findingssuch as the importance of calf birth weighthave led
to industry-wide changes. Now they're investigating the role of hormones in
calving and working to isolate specific genes that would give producers even
more breeding tools.
Miles City scientists work exclusively with beef cattle, but because dystocia
also affects dairy cows, the dairy industry can apply many of the lab's
"When I started with ARS in the early 1960s, we knew that dystocia had an
economic impact, but there was little information about it," says Bellows.
Now considered an international expert on dystocia, he still consults at the
lab, though he retired last year.
Geneticist Michael MacNeil (left)
and physiologist Robert Bellows
examine implantable transmitters
used to record body temperature
and heart rate of cows before,
during, and after giving birth.
Thanks to research by Bellows and others, producers can reduce calf deaths by
up to 55 percent and heifer deaths by 80 percent with proper management.
By 1971, Bellows and colleagues pinpointed birth weight as the most important
cause of calving difficulty: Large calves mean more dystocia. While this
finding seems intuitive, previous scientific evidence had been inconclusive.
And larger birth weight is exactly what beef cattle breeders had sought. The
weight of a calf when it is weaned at 6 to 8 months determines its market
valueand larger birth weights are associated with larger weaning weights.
A cesarean section may be
necessary when calving
difficulty is extreme.
"But we showed that it's a trade-off," Bellow says. "The cost of
lost calves and slower rebreeding caused by dystocia diminishes the value of
large birth weight."
Another key, Bellows found, was maximizing growth of the young cows.
"Feeding young heifers so they grow more rapidly from weaning to breeding
increases the size of their skeleton and pelvis, which helps reduce
dystocia," he says.
Sires also have a major influence on dystocia, Bellows and colleagues found.
"Large, high-gaining sires produce calves with large birth weights,"
he says. Sire selection is crucial in balancing desired birth weights and
Using this information, geneticists developed selection tools to improve
calving ease. Additionally, breeders stopped selecting primarily for weaning
weight and looked closely at keeping birth weight under control. That helped,
but didn't solve the entire problem.
"When producers apply the researchby selecting sires and cows for
reduced calving difficulty and lower birth weights, giving timely obstetrical
assistance at calving, and providing proper nutrition before and after
calvingthe incidence of dystocia decreases up to 25 percent and
rebreeding improves up to 15 percent," says Bellows.
The latest work at the laboratory has been on hormonal and genetic factors
"We knew in the 1970s that cows carrying male calves had more difficulty
at calving than those carrying females," Bellows said. "But in 1993,
we discovered that it was more than size difference between the genders. Cows
carrying male calves have higher testosterone levels than cows carrying
females." That could influence the cow's ability to deliver a calf,
They've also found that cows that have difficulty calving have different
estrogen and progesterone levels than cows that don't need assistance. This may
indicate a difference in the degree of relaxation and expansion of the birth
canal and the force of labor contractions.
Another project under way: LARRL scientists are working to develop genetic
tools that will enable breeders to more precisely select animals having less
Ideally, producers want to maximize growth and weaning weight while keeping
birth weight low enough to reduce calving problems. The traits are correlated,
but researchers have identified a genetic region that may help separate them.
"There are probably many genes that affect those traits jointly,"
says ARS geneticist Michael D. MacNeil. "We suspect there are also some
genes that act independently, and it appears we've found a location on
chromosome 2 that influences birth weight without influencing subsequent
While the discovery is exciting, it may be a while before scientists determine
its value. "We haven't found the specific gene and don't know how the
region influences birth weight," he says.
By analogy, MacNeil says the bovine genome is 3,000 units long; in miles,
that's about the distance from New York to Los Angeles. They've narrowed the
gene location down to a stretch of 30 to 40 units, or to within the Los Angeles
metropolitan area in the cross-country analogy.
"It is still a substantial challenge to find the right
address," says MacNeil.
Mott's family started selecting sires for lower birth weights years ago,
sacrificing some growth but reducing dystocia. In the future, the lab's work
with hormones and genetics may help ranchers and breeders help their heifers
even more.By Kathryn Barry
Stelljes, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Food Animal Production, an ARS National Program
(#101) described on the World Wide Web at http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Robert A. Bellows,
Michael D. MacNeil, and Tom Mott
are at the USDA-ARS Fort Keogh Livestock
and Range Research Laboratory, Rte. 1, Box 2021, Miles City, MT 59301-9202;
phone (406) 232-4970, fax (406) 232-8209.
"Helping Heifers Calve Easier" was
published in the July
2001 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.