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Dairy Talk

RSS By: Jim Dickrell, Dairy Today

Jim Dickrell is the editor of Dairy Today and is based in Monticello, Minn.

Simple Steps Save Calves

May 31, 2013

Without intervention, 40% of calves that need more than minor assistance at birth will die.

Rather than speculate on the Farm Bill or immigration reform and tell you stuff you already know, I thought I’d use this space this week to relay a presentation by Colorado State Veterinarian Franklyn Garry.

Garry spoke at the Minnesota Dairy Health Conference a couple of weeks ago and gave some really simple management tips on preventing stillborn calves. Many of these calves are born alive, but die within a few hours.

Roughly 40% of calves that need more than minor assistance at birth will either die immediately or die later. "And those that do survive have increased likelihood of respiratory and digestive problems later in their lives," says Garry.

Using these tips, you can save up to half of at-risk calves. That’s a pretty big payback for all the investment you have in these newborns.

First-calf Holstein heifers always have the most problems with dystocia. Ensuring heifers are well-grown and in proper condition at calving is the place to start. Using calving-ease bulls on heifers is also critical.

Personnel also must be trained in the birthing process. Frequent observation at calving is critical to determine if and when calving assistance is required. Producers should work with their veterinarians to train employees on both the birthing process and then when and how to intervene.

Once the calf is born, there are three simple things that should be done immediately:

• Stimulate and enhance breathing. "To help calves breath, mucus in the upper airway should be removed via suction or positioning the head and neck to drain," says Garry.
The common practice of suspending calves from their rear legs to clear fluids can be counterproductive. "We prefer to place calves in sternal recumbency (normal upright lying position) immediately after birth," he says.

If calves have not started breathing, the use of mechanical devices such as an Ambu bag provides positive ventilation. Vigorous rubbing of the ribs with towels also stimulates the calf to breath.

• Minimize heat loss. Calves should maintain a body temperature of 101°F. Dry calves immediately after birth. Calves should then be placed in deep-bedded areas where they can nest. In winter, you might need to provide supplemental heat via heat lamps, warming boxes or calf jackets.

• Administer colostrum. In addition to improving immune function, colostrum provides essential fluids, increases blood volume and improves circulation. "Colostrum is also an important source of energy," says Garry. "This energy and the fact that colostrum is given to calves at 100° to 105°F helps support their body temperature."

Using these simple management techniques immediately after birth can reduce stillborn rates significantly with little or no out-of-pocket costs. "There’s no rocket science here," Garry says.

You can read more on reducing dystocia and stillbirths here and here.

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