Ensuring survival with newborn care

While it is a relief to get a calf out after a hard calving, these calves are still highly vulnerable. Dystocia is a major risk factor for stillbirth and infectious disease in early life. Some calves born following severe dystocia can survive quite well, which can lead one to underestimate the further assistance that some other calves may require; calves that experience mild dystocia can still be affected quite negatively. For any calf you are present for immediately following birth, and particularly following a difficult calving, there are a few simple steps you can take to ensure that they not only survive, but that they thrive.

Physiology of calving

When a calf’s umbilicus is broken, it can no longer acquire oxygen from its dam, and must breathe in air. With difficult calvings, calves can develop respiratory acidosis. If this condition remains uncorrected, the calf can also develop metabolic acidosis. This causes the calf’s blood pH to rise, which can decrease the calf’s ability to absorb immunoglobulins (antibodies) from colostrum. Consider the following steps to help your calf overcome the challenge of a difficult start, and get them going right.

Newborn care:

  1. Clear the airway – remove mucous from around the mouth and nose to make sure the calf is able to breathe. You can also insert a piece of straw into the nasal cavity, or you can pour some cold water on the calf’s head – these methods should initiate the gasp reflex to encourage respiration. A healthy calf should make an attempt to breathe within 30 seconds of birth.
  2. Dry the calf off – if the dam is unable to dry her calf off, or if you are removing the calf immediately (as recommended in herds at risk for Johne’s), it is critical that you get the calf dry. Using a clean, dry towel, you can ‘fluff dry’ the calf from the tail to the head, just as the cow does. What does this do?
    • Drying vigorously, especially around the shoulders and neck encourages respiration. The calf stretches out, which encourages breathing. However, do not slap or hit the chest excessively. It is also critical to get the calf sternal (rather than letting it lay on its side), and to encourage the calf’s attempts to rise.
    • Drying helps the calf to regulate its body temperature. Otherwise, heat is removed from the calf as the water evaporates, leaving the calf highly susceptible to chilling, and wasting it’s energy stores. Young calves have little subcutaneous fat, leaving them with minimal insulation. Calves with poor respiration also struggle more to regulate their temperature.
  3. Give colostrum – once the calf is breathing well, colostrum should be administered. Not only does this provide the calf with disease-fighting antibodies, but it also increases the calf’s blood volume. This improves the calf’s blood circulation, which can help to correct metabolic acidosis.

While it may be difficult to know which calves need extra help, these are simple and quick steps, some of which you may already use. These steps are useful for any calf, and will not cause harm even if the calf is not suffering negative effects from calving. Taking its temperature is also another reliable indicator of health; remember the newborn is a few degrees higher to start, but an excessive drop can indicate it is struggling.

However, one thing you should NOT do is the hang the calf upside down. This can often cause fluids to come out of the stomach, rather than the lungs. Instead, you can lay a calf over a bale, and just allow the head to extend over the edge, as recommended by Sheila McGuirk of the University of Wisconsin.

Continue to keep an eye on these calves as they grow. Consider tagging hutches or pens of calves from difficult calvings. You may want to handle these calves with extra care when moving them, as they can commonly suffer from fractured ribs.

Taking just a couple of extra minutes to get your calves breathing and dry, and ensuring quick colostrum are critical – for proper respiratory function, thermoregulation, and being able to fight disease!