Calves are the future of the dairy herd and the future and the profit of the beef cow-calf. Dr. John Mee from Ireland is a specialist in calf care and recently reviewed important aspects of new-born calf care.
One topic he addressed was how to get calves going shortly after they’re born. Surveys show that many stillborn calves actually tried to breathe. He stated that
75 % of calves that die within an hour of birth have more than half their lungs filled with air. That means that they might have survived if they had a little properly-timed help. He laid out a list of recommended practices. A few could really only be done by a veterinarian but most can be done by anyone looking after the birth.
1. If the calf looks normal, he recommended dipping the navel. Navel infections might not be a worry on some farms but they are very common on many others. Recent research shows that dipping reduces the risk of infection by 66 %. There is not that much difference between dips. Iodine is a good choice. With any dip, it is important to get good coverage. That can be more difficult if you spray rather than dip navels.
2. Roll the calf up onto its sternum.
3. Feed it colostrum.
4. Let the cow or heifer lick the calf dry. On dairy farms, he recommended removing the calf before it has a chance to nurse by itself. This is a practice that is becoming controversial in the EU.
The calves that don’t get a good start are more of a challenge. Dr. Mee’s recommendations mirror recommendations for high-risk infants. Clearing the calf’s airway and getting it breathing is the first priority. He recommended using your hand or a suction to clear the nostrils and mouth. He recommended suspending the calf to drain fluid that you can’t reach. Like me, he worried that hanging a calf may make it more difficult to breathe by putting pressure on the diaphragm. So he recommended hanging upside down for no more than about a minute. He also noted that much of the fluid that comes out is not from the lungs at all but is from the stomach. Clearing the calf’s airways is likely particularly important for calves where there is evidence of meconium either in the birth fluids or on the calf itself.
The next step is getting the calf to breathe. Compressing the chest then letting it relax while the calf is on its side is a good idea. If you shove straw or your finger up the nose, cold water over the head or in just the ear or rub the chest vigorously (or all of them), try to roll the calf onto its sternum first. That should help the calf inflate both sides of its lungs.
There are resuscitators that you can use to help a calf breathe. They look easy to use but you need to get a good seal around the nose and you may very well end up just pushing air down the esophagus rather than inflating the lungs. You also need to keep them clean.
Then dip its navel. Calves will likely get a greater benefit from dipping the navel.
Lastly, make sure the calf gets colostrum. Dry off the calf if the cow doesn’t start to do that right away.
Beef farmers might find that a warming box is great for calves that need help getting going. A dairy farmer might find them pretty handy too. I like them better than heat lamps.
Dr. Rob Tremblay is veterinarian for Boehringer-Ingelheim and lives near Guelph.