Simple Steps Save Calves

January 23, 2014 09:26 PM
Simple Steps Save Calves

Cut stillbirth losses in half

Difficult births—dystocia—take a heavy toll on newborn calves. Roughly 40% of calves that need more than minor assistance at birth will die immediately or die later.

"Those that do survive have increased likelihood of respiratory and digestive problems later in their lives," explains Franklyn Garry, a veterinarian with Colorado State University.

"Since dystocia is associated with 50% of preweaned calf losses, every dairy should implement a dystocia monitoring program and employ management practices that limit the occurrence and impact of dystocia," he adds.

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More on reducing dystocia, stillbirths

Simple management techniques immediately after birth can reduce stillborn rates by half. "There’s no rocket science here," Garry says.

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 dairy employees on the birthing process, as well as when and how to intervene.

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

  • Stimulate and enhance the animal’s breathing. "To help calves breathe, mucus in the upper airway should be removed via suction or positioning the head and neck to drain," Garry says.

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 breathe.

  • 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 an important source of energy," Garry adds. "This energy, and because it is given to calves at 100°F to 105°F, helps support their body temperature."  


Dystocia Scoring System

Every birth on your dairy should be scored for dystocia. It’s the only way you’ll know how much dystocia is actually occurring and whether management changes you’ve implemented are actually working, says Franklyn Garry, a veterinarian with Colorado State University. Use this simple system:

  • Score 1. No assistance needed.
  • Score 2. One person assist and relatively easy pull.
  • Score 3. Any assistance beyond that.

Then record whether it’s a live or dead birth, sex of the calf, time it takes for the calf to stand, time to colostrum and time to suckle. Guidelines for the ideal calf:

  • Head upright: within 2 minutes of birth.
  • Calf in sternal, upright lying position: within 3 minutes of birth.
  • Calf attempts to stand up: within 20 minutes of birth.   
  • Calf is able to stand on its own: within 60 minutes.
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