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Get newborn calves breathing and eating

Events immediately following birth are important to future health of the calf

This newborn calf appears to be bright and alert and soon ready to try nursing.

Two of the most important steps after a calf has been born are to make sure it breathes properly, especially if the calf had to be pulled. And then shortly after, make sure they find the udder.

In most normal births, the calf will begin breathing within 30 to 60 seconds after delivery. If it doesn’t, clear the membranes and fluid away from the nose (and if necessary draw fluid out of the nostrils with a suction bulb if you have one in your pocket) and tickle the inside of one nostril with a clean piece of hay or straw. This usually makes him cough and start breathing. If that doesn’t work, you may have to give the calf artificial respiration.


In the past, veterinarians often recommended holding a calf up by its hind legs to allow fluid to drain from the airways. However, they now realize most of the fluid that drains out is from the stomach, and these fluids are important to the health of the calf. Holding the calf up by the hind legs is counterproductive, putting pressure on the diaphragm (from the abdominal organs), which may interfere with normal respiratory movements. It’s better to use a suction bulb (or even a turkey baster) to clear the airways. Another way to help stimulate a calf to breathe is to rub him briskly with a towel.

If a calf was stressed during a hard birth and does not start breathing immediately, this may be a sign it’s suffering from acidosis — a pH imbalance due to shortage of oxygen — which can have an adverse effect on heart and lung function. It may take several hours or days for the calf’s system to correct this. Watch to see how soon the calf lifts its head and positions itself upright, rather than lying flat, after delivery. This is one way to tell if the calf is normal or compromised.

If a calf isn’t breathing, make sure the nostrils are clear and tickle the nose with a straw to stimulate a cough.
If a calf isn’t breathing, make sure the nostrils are clear and tickle the nose with a straw to stimulate a cough. photo: Heather Smith Thomas

After a normal birth the calf should be looking around and trying to get up, within two to five minutes. If he just lies there, stimulate him by rubbing him to get his circulation going better, and position him upright. Lung function and ribcage movement are impeded when he’s lying flat.

Navel care

After the calf starts breathing, disinfect the navel stump. If the cow calved on clean grass pasture there’s less chance for bacteria entering the navel. But if the nearby environment happened to be on dirt or mud/manure in a pen or dirty bedding material, there’s risk for infection. Dip the navel stump in tincture of iodine or chlorhexadine. Iodine kills pathogens and acts as an astringent to help the stump dry quickly and seal off.

An easy way to apply iodine is to dip the entire stump in a small wide-mouth jar containing a half inch of iodine, putting it up to the abdomen and swishing it around, making sure the entire stump is saturated. If the navel cord broke off long and might be dragging on the ground, break it shorter before you immerse it in iodine. Leave a three to four inch stump. Do this with very clean hands, or wearing surgical gloves and pull it between your hands. Never create a jerk on the calf’s belly. Breaking it is better than cutting it; the stump is more apt to bleed if it’s cut.

One application of iodine may not be enough to dry the stump quickly. You may have to repeat it a couple times during the first 24 hours, to prevent navel infection. Bull calves take longer for the cord to dry, since they often urinate while lying down, keeping the navel area wet.

Occasionally you’ll encounter a calf with an umbilical hernia. If the opening is large, it needs to be surgically repaired. On rare occasion the intestines will start to come out through the hole, or a loop will fall down into the umbilical membrane. If intestines are falling out, take the calf to your vet, keeping the intestines clean by covering them with a towel. The vet may be able to replace them and stitch the hole.

If a loop of prolapsed intestine is encased in the navel cord, put the calf on his back and gently squeeze the intestine back up into the abdomen, then put an elastrator band over the umbilical membranes, next to the belly, to keep the hole tightly closed. It will usually grow together and seal off and the calf will be fine.

On occasion a calf may bleed profusely when the navel cord breaks. Halt it with a clamp of some kind (like a hair clip) or tie it with string for a couple hours to stop the bleeding.


Make sure the calf nurses soon after birth. If it doesn’t accomplish this on its own, guide the calf to the udder. If it can’t nurse its mother, feed it by bottle, stomach tube or esophageal feeder. The cow’s first milk is crucial to health and survival of the calf. It contains a creamy fat that gives him energy (and generates body warmth in cold weather), and acts as a laxative to help him pass his first bowel movements.

Colostrum also provides antibodies against disease. Some antibodies are absorbed directly into his blood and lymph systems (passing through the intestinal wall) if he nurses soon enough. These help fight systemic infections, attacking pathogens like pasteurella, streptococcus or salmonella that might cause septicemia. Other antibodies stay in the gut to attack scour-causing pathogens the calf might ingest.

If the calf is a bit slow or the mother cow a bit reluctant, the calf may need to be guided toward the udder.
If the calf is a bit slow or the mother cow a bit reluctant, the calf may need to be guided toward the udder. photo: Heather Smith Thomas

If the cow was on a good vaccination program before calving, she’ll have strong immunity and the antibodies in her colostrum will give her calf immediate protection as soon as he nurses. It does no good to vaccinate the cow against scour-causing E. coli, rotavirus or coronavirus, however, if the calf doesn’t nurse within a few hours of birth. If he is unable to nurse, give him substitute colostrum from another cow, or a commercial product.

Don’t use dairy colostrum; it won’t have as many antibodies because of the immense volume produced, and may be risky. The calf may get salmonella or some other unwanted pathogen from a dairy cow. A cow on your own place has better colostrum because she creates the antibodies needed to protect a calf in your environment.

A partial feeding of frozen or commercial substitute can be used to “jump start” a calf if you think it will stimulate it to nurse the dam right away. But a part feeding can be counterproductive if it doesn’t ingest a full meal soon. The little bit you fed the calf stimulates the “open” gut to close more quickly and it won’t be able to absorb any more antibodies. If the calf won’t be nursing its mother soon, give it a full feeding.

A newborn calf can absorb large antibody molecules directly through the intestinal lining, but pathogens can also slip through. It’s a race between pathogens and the antibodies, so make sure the antibodies get there first. Other components in colostrum coat the gut and provide a different type of antibody to combat pathogens ingested during the calf’s first hours of life. If the “good guys” in colostrum get to the gut first, they close the door to pathogenic organisms, preventing penetration of the intestinal lining by bacteria and their toxins.

Stress can shorten the window of opportunity for absorbing antibodies. Cold weather, hot weather, difficult birth, or any other stress makes it crucial to get colostrum into the calf immediately. Antibody levels obtained by calves at first nursing are significantly lower in calves that experienced difficult birth, even when the cow is milked immediately after calving and the calf is force-fed. If the calf was short on oxygen during birth, it may suffer from temporary acidosis, which inhibits the gut from efficiently absorbing antibodies.

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