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Caring for newborn calves

Beef producers might need to use one or more of several common procedures to help newborn calves get off to a good start. Some things have changed over the years, whereas many others haven’t. The newborn calf is easy to handle (sometimes its possessive mother isn’t) and the calf is readily accessible, so it makes sense to perform management decisions when you have the chance. The most important point is to make sure the calf has adequate colostrum and I have dedicated whole articles to this topic. One to two litres within the first six hours of life is a necessity. Calves being fed Holstein colostrum will need twice that amount.

Vitamin boost

Most producers routinely still give injections of vitamin A, D and selenium to the newborn. Most of Western Canada is somewhat deficient in selenium and very little of these nutrients spill over into the milk, so these injections give the calf a good start. Use as small a needle as you can get away with. A one-inch needle is preferable and selenium will flow through a 20-gauge needle, whereas with A and D a larger 18 gauge is needed. In larger calves the neck muscles can be used, but I find in smaller calves there is very little neck muscle and this is the only instance I recommend using the back leg muscles.

To give the shot, come in from the back of the calf half-way down to reduce the risk of hitting the large sciatic nerve, which courses close to the hips. DO NOT, under any circumstances give the shots any where close to the hip area. Some producers will even supplement with human vitamin E capsules (two of the 400 IU strength) if this nutrient is deficient in your area. The vitamin E dose, which is in A,D,E or Se-E, is present in very small amounts as a preservative so is of no value to the calf. Consult with your veterinarian about any other supplements, which may be recommended for your specific geographic area. Also be aware that injectable selenium comes in a double-strength formulation, so watch your dosage.


Many producers are letting the polled bulls do the dehorning, but for those who aren’t dehorning should be mentioned. At birth there are two approaches — the paste or using an electric dehorner such as a Buddex. The horns grow from the cells right at the base of the horn in the hairline, so concentrate your efforts on this area. The Buddex dehorners are good, but require a second person to securely hold the calf. With paste you must separate cow and calf for a couple of hours so the caustic paste used on the horn bud doesn’t injure the udder as the calf nurses or rubs the cow. Again, concentrate on putting the paste on the circular area surrounding the horn bud. If there is a lot of bleeding the paste has been applied too thickly.

I always urge producers to stick with the same brand year after year to learn the most effective amount to apply. Brands vary in their strength and viscosity and it is only after one year that you can assess how effective your paste dehorning has been. A good paste job will have the calf almost looking polled later in life.

Weighing and navel treatment

If you weigh your calves they weigh less at one day of age, and the navel is dry so handling at this time is preferable.

Most producers do not treat the navel with anything as there are as many problems with navel infections on treated as well as untreated navels. Some concentrations of iodine are too strong, for instance, and burn and irritate the area. You would be wise to spend your labour elsewhere. If a real problem exists your veterinarian may recommend prophylactic antibiotics and examine other reasons why the navel area is becoming contaminated.


Tagging is another necessary step for identification. Since 2006, calves need both a dangle tag as well as a new RFID tag. If you use RFID tags in sequence it is not onerous then to get the calves entered into the CCIA database. This makes them eligible for age verification.

An easy way is to record the sequence for our calves during the main part of the calving season and register them all with the same birth date as the oldest one in the group. You are only cheating yourself out of one or two months of age, but this way the whole calf crop becomes conservatively age verified. With the tag brand our clinic carries, for example, you can even get them consecutively numbered when buying boxes of 500 tags.

With dangle tags, the most effective numerical method I’ve seen is used by purebred producers where a letter indicates year of birth. The calves are then numerically numbered oldest to youngest. The cow’s number is then put above this. Different colours can represent ownership, per cent purebred, breed or sire group. Some even put the actual birth date on the back of the tag.

The bottom line: time spent properly tagging goes a long way to helping your management down the line, and helps with marketing later on. The age-verification program will become an extremely important as we start exporting meat to other countries.


Castration of commercial bulls’ calves and substandard purebred calves is best done at birth, as this is the least stressful time. Most producers use castration rings. If done properly at one-day of age there are very few complications. Two points worth mentioning though — castrated calves will not grow nearly as well as intact bulls so they should be implanted. This will give you at least a 10-to-one return on your investment. This has been proven time and time again.

Producers must be extremely careful when ringing calves to ensure both testicles are trapped below the ring in the scrotum. If this cannot be accomplished, leave them intact so they can be castrated with a knife in the fall. We as veterinarians and feedlot owners see way too many “belly nuts” as we call them, where sloppy castration has left one or sometimes both testicles pushed up tight against the body when the scrotum was removed by a castration ring. And that means another unnecessary stress must be performed on these calves. Castration of these calves is five times as difficult because of the location of these testicles. If not done they of course look very staggy and will cause headaches in a pen of steers.

Try and perform as many of these management procedures this spring on your calves. This saves management headaches later and makes your calves more marketable. Consult with your veterinarian as to any other management procedures to take advantage of at this time. The calves are in close proximity at this time and easy to handle. Just be ever mindful of over-possessive mothers. Every year we get one or two producers roughed up by these cows and it is not a pretty sight. Be careful! †

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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