The first few hours in a calf’s life are absolutely critical to their long term performance in health status and production. Given the stress on the calf during the birthing process and the system shock of entering the outside world here are a few things you can do to help.
From the beginning, one of the first things you can do is assist the calf in clearing the mucous covering his mouth & nostrils to help them with their breathing. There are multiple ways to do this, some I’ve come across include:
- “Hang the calf” This involves lifting them so the head is below the chest or hanging the calf on a sloped surface to let fluids drain from the lungs, this DOES NOT mean hang them upside down over a gate or swing the calf as this will distress the calf and make it more difficult for them to expand their lungs to breathe. This should not be for more than 1-2 minutes as it labours the calf and can cause more stress for both calf and farmer. One similar practice used by many farmers is to release tension from the jack once the calf’s ribs are outside the cow to let the calf hang from their hips, be careful not to lever the calf too much on their back as they can be easily injured.
- Stimulate the nostrils to make the calf cough or sneeze. Usually this is done with straw or a gloved fingertip, anything clean, small enough to enter the nostril and soft enough that it won’t injure or inflame the nose should be suitable for the job
- ‘Christening’ the calf with cold water over the head or poured into the ear to shock them with the cold and stimulate head shakes and coughing to clear fluid from the throat, this is another way to stimulate a cough / snort but is a pretty abrupt welcome into the world for a newborn calf (or anyone waking up in the morning!).
- ‘Kiss of life’ (Aspiration) This involves inflating the lungs by breathing through a soft tube inserted into the nostril or a ‘gas mask’ (shown below) that is placed over the snout, much like the above straw method this prompts the calf to snort/cough with the added momentum of a lung full of air to clear the throat.
Calf resuscitator in use
Now once our calf has taken their first breaths whether assisted or not, you may notice their breathing will be heavy and they will be panting. This is because a calf is born with less oxygen in their body than they need (Hypoxia) this should not worry you as their breathing will relax after the first hour. This may vary depending on the speed of the birth as this can limit how much time they have to clear fluid during the birth.
Whether or not you routinely employ any of the above methods it is considered good practice to put the calf in a comfortable position to allow them to breathe easily. This position would be a ‘sitting’ posture much like a mature cow would do:
Comfortable posture for a new calf
Getting adequate amounts of beastings (colostrum) as soon as possible is critical to the long term health of the calf and their long term performance. The lining of the calf gut is open to absorb immunity (Immunoglobulins) for a short period of time after birth. 24 hours post-calving the gut can no longer absorb immunity from the colostrum and the calf’s immune system is on its own from then on. It is recommended to get 2 litres (3.5 pints) of colostrum into the calf within the first 2 hours of life ideally by their own suckling, but unfortunately for us things don’t always go that smoothly. Whether it’s an unruly cow or a weak calf, sometimes it is necessary to supplement with colostrum sourced elsewhere. If possible with other fresh colostrum rather than frozen but only if the fresh colostrum can be gathered within 2 hours to maintain the immunity. Colostrum sources in descending order of benefit include:
- The calf’s own mother - this will most closely match the immunity needed for the calf as it is tailor made according to any common infections on your farm by the cow
- Another beef cow from your farm - this will have similar properties to the mother in terms or immunity profile and beef cows typically have a higher concentration of immunoglobulins in their colostrum over dairy cows
- A dairy cow from your farm - because of the volume of colostrum produced in a dairy cow as compared to a beef cow, you get less immunity in the same volume when compared to a beef breed
- Dried shop-bought colostrum - while these are less beneficial than the natural sources, they offer a great convenient alternative when other sources aren’t available.
A crucial point in caring for your newborn calf is treatment of the navel. The navel or umbilical cord is what connects the calf to the cow during pregnancy. This is how they receive nutrition / oxygen while in the womb. As this breaks during the calving process it leaves a direct route into the calf’s system open for infection and needs to be taken care of as soon as possible. Here’s a few tips to decrease the chance of infection in your calf:
- Ensure the calving pen is clean and dry as possible. As with most things around the farm warm / wet / dirty is the ideal combination for infections to grow and a calving pen is home to all three. Disinfecting after every calving and making sure there is a dry deep bedding in your pen can work wonders for reducing risk of infection and increasing the comfort of your cows at the same time.
- Treat the exposed navel. By removing any debris / dirt and applying some disinfectant to the fresh navel you can eliminate whatever infections might be present to reduce the chance of infection later on. While any animal-safe disinfectant will do, most people will use Iodine Tincture ( >7% works best ) as a combination of the Iodine and alcohol present cleans and accelerates the drying of the navel. It is important to completely cover the navel in solution to make sure there are no areas to harbour infection. For particularly thick / wet navels multiple treatments may be necessary over the first few days to fully dry out the navel
- Monitor your calf. Even with the best practice there is no way to guarantee your calf won’t become infected. Therefore, it is critical to check the navel regularly during the first 7-10 days for signs of infection / swelling (shown below). These are signs of an umbilical hernia and can be a cause for painful gut damage in the calf. Other signs to look out for are swelling of the lower joints on the legs (joint ill) and septicaemia which normally presents as high temperatures, panting and lack of appetite. In any of these cases a long acting antibiotic might be what is needed but consult your vet for the best approach.
Normal (left) vs problem (right)
There is plenty more you can do to give your calf the best start in life and we’ll be covering what you can do before birth in future posts, where we will discuss management of the late pregnancy cow and minerals that can give your calf the edge. If you have any questions on this topic or suggestions for what you’d like to see discussed contact me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org, via the live chat option on this page or through our Facebook Page
Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any other useful suggestions or tips!
All the best,