By Kindra Gordon

As calving season approaches, it may be time to rethink a few standard management steps when it comes to newborn calves. Amanda Fordyce, a technical calf consultant with Milk Products LLC, says there are three important “don’ts” to keep in mind in the immediate moments after a calf is on the ground.

One practice to avoid – hanging the calf upside down immediately following birth to “clear the lungs.” Fordyce explains, “We’ve learned the fluid expelled by calves during this practice was not from the lungs at all but the contents of the stomach.”

She adds, “Turning the calf upside down compresses the internal organs onto the diaphragm, making it more challenging for the calf to breathe in that position. The calf will absorb excess fluid over time, and the priority should be to clear any mucus/fluids from the nostrils and mouth and ensure the calf starts breathing as soon as possible.”

Second, when it comes to stillbirths, don’t give up right away. Fordyce explains, “Some calves may be born not breathing, but many still have a heartbeat. Resuscitation or assistance to start breathing may be necessary.”

To do this, check for a heartbeat by feeling the chest (behind the front leg, left side); if there is a heartbeat, try stimulating the calf to breathe by vigorously rubbing their chests, using the nostril straw poke and cold water on their forehead or in their ear, and propping them up. “You may be surprised by how many calves you can save,” she says.

Third, Fordyce prefers producers don’t use warming boxes, but if they must, use them with extreme caution. She explains that warming boxes serve as a reservoir for harmful bacteria, which in turn invade the calf at its most vulnerable immune state. 

Additionally, calves are born with brown fat to help them naturally regulate their body temperature in the first few days of life. Too much time in a warming box – more than 24 hours – means that fat reserve can be burned off by the time the calf enters the real world, leaving it vulnerable to survive the transition, concludes Fordyce.

Do ensure colostrum consumed

Last but not least, Fordyce underscores the well-known advice that the newborn calf needs colostrum within the first couple hours of life. She explains, “ Bovine physiology dictates all antibodies and other immune factors are delivered to the offspring via colostrum. Even well-vaccinated, healthy cows are unable to pass that protection onto the calf in the womb. Plus, the calf’s ability to absorb colostral antibodies declines rapidly over the first 24 hours of life.”

If a calf is unable to nurse colostrum from its mother, Fordyce says the recommendation is to feed at least 3 to 4 quarts (10% of the calf’s bodyweight) of high-quality, biosecure colostrum within the first two hours of life. 

This may mean feeding frozen, stored colostrum collected from other dams. It should be thawed slowly to avoid destroying its immune-supporting proteins. (Another tip: A Brix refractometer reading of 22 or higher can be used to determine high-quality colostrum.)

Or, supplemental colostrum replacers are available. For high-quality, she recommends feeding one containing 150 grams immunoglobulin G per dose.