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Tips for getting calves up and going

Great calving season advice from the Beef Cattle Research Council

Newborn calves are born with virtually no immunity of their own.

Calving is a natural process. Most cows give birth to a healthy calf and everything goes as planned. However, there are times when things go wrong. Perhaps there is a malpresentation, such as a backwards arrival, or the calf’s foot is back. In some cases, calves may not take their first breath after a difficult labour. Here are a few tips to consider to get a calf up and going as soon as possible:

  • Position the calf in the recovery position with both front legs tucked underneath its chest or out in front, and back legs on each side of the body, pulled towards its head. This allows the calf’s lungs to expand with the least amount of pressure, making it easier for it to breathe.
  • Avoid hanging calves over gates or upside down. Hanging a calf upside down causes its stomach and intestines to press down on the diaphragm and compress the lungs, making it harder for it to breathe. Although fluid will come out, this fluid is from the stomach, not the lungs. For a very good visual on how to resuscitate a calf check out the BCRC You Tube video: Calf 911 – New Video Demonstrates Effective Calf Resuscitation Strategies.
  • Gently poke the nasal septum. This may cause the calf to gasp and take a deep breath in and initiate the breathing process.
  • Squirt a few drops of water in a calf’s ear, which can often cause it to gasp and start breathing. Be careful not to fill the ear with water as this could cause an ear infection.
  • Consider giving a pain-control product such as meloxicam to cows and calves after a difficult birth. Recent work at the University of Calgary showed this provided a slight statistical improvements in weight gain during the first week of life. Furthermore, without being told which calves had received the pain-control product, producers were able to identify them. They noted that these calves appeared brighter, mothered up faster, and were let out of the barn sooner.

It can be stressful when newborn calves don’t get off to a healthy start. However, these techniques will allow farmers to know how to respond quickly and provide timely care and attention to newborn calves that need resuscitation.

No immunity

Newborn calves are born with virtually no immunity of their own. Unlike other mammals, a cow’s placenta does not allow antibodies to pass from the mother to the calf during pregnancy, which means the calf must receive its initial immunity from the antibody-rich colostrum, or first milk, of the cow. This initial immunity is essential because it provides protective antibodies against many diseases that affect newborn calves, such as scours, navel abscesses, arthritis and pneumonia.

If the calf is at risk of not having adequate colostrum, such as after a difficult birth, is a twin, is delivered via C-section, has a weak suckle reflex, or hasn’t sucked in the first few hours of life, supplementation is recommended. If a calf requires colostrum supplementation, here are a few things to consider:

  • The ideal intake is two litres of colostrum within the first two hours of life and another two litres in the next eight to 12 hours.
  • Colostrum from the calf’s mother is the preferred source. Safely restrain the cow and milk her colostrum into a disinfected bottle or feeding tube. If that is not an option, choose from stored colostrum from other cattle on your farm, or a freeze-dried, powdered commercial colostrum product.
  • Start a colostrum bank from mature cows within your herd that have with plentiful colostrum (or from cows that lose calves at birth).
  • At the start of calving season, make sure you have a powdered colostrum product on hand that has at least 100 grams of immunoglobulin G (IgG) per package and reconstitutes to the smallest volume possible. Read the product label carefully to see if the package is a “replacement” or a “supplement” as supplements contain fewer grams of IgG.
  • If it is not used within the hour, cow colostrum should be frozen. It can remain in the freezer for up to a year.
  • Make sure to clean and disinfect bottles or tubes after feeding. Have separate marked bottles for colostrum for newborns versus electrolytes or medicines for sick calves.
  • Thaw frozen colostrum slowly. If it heats up too fast it will destroy the proteins. Set frozen colostrum in hot (but not boiling) water. Do not use the microwave to thaw colostrum as it breaks down the protein.

Ensuring a calf has adequate colostrum at birth is one of the most important ways a producer can set that calf up for a successful and productive life.

Electrolytes may be needed

Supplementing young calves with electrolytes is sometimes necessary. Electrolytes are given to calves showing signs of dehydration, usually due to scours.Most calves that die from scours don’t succumb to the virus or bacteria causing the symptoms, but rather die from dehydration. Adequately rehydrating calves when they are sick is key for calf survival. Here are a few things to remember when rehydrating calves:

  • Stick two fingers in a calf’s mouth to see if it will suck. If a calf still has a suckle reflex, it is probably only mildly dehydrated and can be revived with oral electrolytes.
  • If a calf is more severely dehydrated, it will be unable to stand and their eyes will be sunken in. If this is the case, it needs veterinary intervention and IV fluids.
  • Ensure electrolyte solutions include salt, potassium, an energy source like glucose, and amino acids like glycine or alanine. This will ensure the product is doing its job to effectively rehydrate the calf. Your veterinarian can help you choose an electrolyte product that will work for you.
  • Have a separately marked bottle for electrolytes and medicines and a separate bottle for colostrum. Avoid using bottles or tubes interchangeably and make sure to clean and disinfect feeding equipment after each use.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about a protocol for feeding oral electrolytes, as the amount needed will change depending on how dehydrated the calf is. Continue giving electrolytes until the calf has stopped scouring, even if it looks like it has recovered, because it can still become dehydrated.

Producers have invested a lot of money into a newborn calf by the time it hits the ground. Once calves have arrived, ensuring they are healthy or treating them for dehydration when necessary will help them thrive and grow.

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