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Be prepared to resuscitate calves

Animal Health: Depending on the birthing difficulty, time may be running out to get a calf breathing

Calving problems have been greatly reduced on modern cow-calf operations, but a producer still needs to be ready for every situation.

There have been many ways discussed among both dairy and beef producers regarding the best way to stimulate a weak calf that doesn’t want to breathe.

With calving season just around the corner, certainly for many purebred producers, this is a good time to share techniques and get the calving area supplied. My experience has found what works and what doesn’t, and revealed procedures that are worth doing and others that are a waste of time. None require a lot of expense, but saving one extra calf these days converts into dollars down the line, not to mention it is doing the right thing. The rewards can feel very good.

There are very many reasons calves come out slow and weak. Recognizing these conditions could give you a heads-up. Every time you give assistance for either fetal oversize and a harder pull or a malpresentation, one must be aware that time is running out. Delivering a weaker, barely alive calf is a definite possibility.

Other instances when calving assistance may be needed include where the cow has been sick and lost weight or there has been some abnormality during pregnancy. Remember — a cow losing body condition in late pregnancy could be carrying twins. After any assisted calving, it is good to carefully examine the uterus for either tears or another calf. If you find another calf, assist in its delivery immediately.

Resuscitation measures

There are several forms of resuscitation that can make it easier to establish breathing with the calf. Often, especially if you see there is a strong heartbeat, you must establish breathing and get oxygenation to the blood. One thing we know for sure is the old often-tried trick of hanging calves upside down to get fluid out does no good. In fact, it does harm as all the organs push down by gravity on the chest, actually making it much more difficult to breathe. The fluid that does come out is generally draining out from the stomachs (rumen).

You are much better to get the calf in a sitting-up, frog-legged position so both lungs can get air equally similar to what would happen in a standing calf. Extend the neck forward to open the airways and then go to work with the following measures.

Any large amounts of mucous around the mouth should be wiped away. There are some good calf resuscitators out there that simply bathe the area in extra oxygen — that helps if breathing is not strong. Some devices even provide suction as well.

Mouth-to-mouth (human-to-animal) resuscitation pretty much does nothing as the air simply goes down the esophagus and inflates the stomach. It doesn’t get into the lungs where it needs to go. It is better, if breathing is slow with a stronger heartbeat, to stimulate breathing by either sticking a straw up the nostril, or to pour cold water or snow in the ear to essentially irritate the calf and get him going.

Try the straw next time on a normal calving and see the quick response you get. If there is no response from the weak calf, it is in trouble. The only thing I have found that has worked is a respiratory stimulant. This used to be Dopram but goes under different trade names (Respisure) and is harder to come by. Your veterinarian can look for respiratory stimulants. It will require a prescription it as may only be approved for other species. In order for these products to be useful they must be close by in your calving kit and readily accessible. Time is of the essence for sure, as a few seconds at this critical point may make the difference.

What’s causing weak calves

The need to stimulate calves should be the exception in today’s cow-calf operations. Calving problems have been greatly reduced so unless it is a hard calving or there has been a delay in getting the calf out, as can occur with a full breech birth, resuscitation shouldn’t be routine. With hard calvings it sometimes pays to stop pulling and let the calf get a few breaths when the rib cage is out before you pull the tight hips through. The calf may beller as they are alive and will feel pain so be aware of this response.

If you are getting too many weak calves, one must look at several factors in the herd management. Is intervention too slow especially in the case of heifers? Once the calving process has started and regardless whether the waterbag has been broken, time is a-ticking.

An old misconception with producers is they have lots of time if the waterbag has not been broken, but that simply isn’t true. As a good rule, intervention should be initiated if within one to 1.5 hours from the onset of labour no progress has been made.

With breech births (backwards with both back legs ahead) and torsions we know often that time is running out so it is imperative to be ready to stimulate the calf.

With a backward calf presentation, once the tail head comes through the pelvis the navel is essentially broken and the calf tries to start breathing. This is where a faster pull from that point forward will save calves. That is why always assist a backwards calf where possible.

Weak calves may be the result of nutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies or imbalances. We must always make sure body condition score is good on the cows and heifers. They also need to be on a good mineral/vitamin program well before calving. These deficiencies happen as the calf is developing so if a deficiency is diagnosed there is no quick fix to get the deficiency reversed.

For example, selenium deficiencies can lead to the weak calf syndrome and iodine deficiencies lead to a goiter and weak or dead calves born.

I have also seen the need to resuscitate when the water bag fails to break. The calf can drown in essentially a cup of fetal fluids. This can happen in too quick a birth and the water bag has essentially not had enough force on it to break. Watch for these cases as well. Also, if placenta is starting to come first, again time is running out. It may already be too late but if there is any sign of life get the calf out as quickly as possible.

One last word of advice on delivering a calf and pre-empting the need to resuscitate — check the viability of the calf by putting fingers in their mouth to test the strength of the swallowing or gag reflex. If the response is very weak you can be sure the calf will be sluggish when delivered. Also if the calf is overly active and thrashing around this could be another sign time is running out. They are being oxygen deprived and need to be delivered as soon as possible. Be ready to apply your resuscitation skills.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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