WAGNER - Calving is well underway in South Dakota, and one area rancher is intent on keeping his new investments healthy and safe.

Tim Weber, one of the owners of Weber Charolais and Red Angus near Wagner, started calving in February, but he said the process really picks up in March.

"We get a few stragglers in June and July, but right now we are at our peak. March is our busiest month," Weber said recently.

Weber calves his Charolais and Red Angus cattle at the same time and mostly completes the process outside, unless there's poor weather.

It's important to give calves dry, clean and warm straw to lay on after they're born, but Weber said cows don't always cooperate.

"Some moms, when they go to have their babies, they'll have them out in the coldest spot possible because they're fevering by some of the laboring aspect of it," Weber said.

But even when a calf is born somewhere warm, there's no guarantee it will be healthy. Of about 600 calves born every year on the ranch, Weber said 50 to 75 catch an infection, depending on the weather, and some antibiotics cost $1,000 per bottle.

"We've had a lot less (infections) than last year. Last year, we had some rain consistently every day in April. It got tough for us," Weber said.

Taylor Grussing, an SDSU Extension cow/calf field specialist based in Mitchell, said some ranchers start calving as early as December, although for most commercial producers, the process lasts from March to May.

Grussing also stressed the importance of giving calves a warm and dry place to rest because they can't tolerate cold weather for very long.

"When it is negative degrees outside or even just below freezing, those wet calves can only be out there for a very short period of time before any kind of frostbite or hypothermia potentially might set in," Grussing said.

Other than providing fresh straw, Grussing said the first thing ranchers should do is make sure calves complete their first nursing experience to get the nourishment of colostrum from their mother's milk.

Grussing said this colostrum must be consumed within the first 24 hours of life because it has extra antibodies to boost the calf's immune system to serve as "the first line of defense," and milk should be its primary diet for two to three months.

Then, when the animals are 2-weeks to 1-month-old, Grussing said producers can begin vaccination strategies to prevent respiratory infections, including pneumonia, which could be common this year after shifts from warm to cool temperatures in March.

"As long as those calves are nursing for a while, they should hopefully be able to make it through those events," Grussing said.

But if an infection does happen, Grussing said antibiotics are available, and since the revisions to veterinary feed directives - which took effect on Jan. 1 and limit how producers can purchase antibiotics - only affect feed-grade medications, the process to get injection antibiotics given to baby calves is unchanged.

Lastly, the heifers need to recover, too, especially if they just gave birth to their first calf. Grussing suggested giving first-calf heifers extra feed so they can continue growing and provide enough milk for the calf.

"Those younger females are still growing themselves, and so we need to make sure they have some extra nutrients available to them so they can rebreed on time with the mature cow herd," Grussing said.