Dr. Frank Garry, Colorado State University – Improving Newborn Calf Survival
Article written by Peggy Coffeen, Progressive Dairyman
We often associate the stress of giving birth with how it affects the cow and underestimate the dramatic physiological changes that the calf undergoes, according to Colorado State University’s Dr. Franklyn Garry, DVM, MS.
“At birth, the calf faces the biggest challenges it will ever face in its life,” Garry explained.
Within minutes, the calf takes its first breaths outside of the cow’s body, which are critical for filling the lungs with oxygen, reducing blood pressure and stimulating heart function. The newborn must also generate body heat quickly and restore its fluid balance by drinking colostrum.
Dystocia, or difficult birthing, can interfere with the calf’s ability to adjust to its new world.
“That is the primary driver of stillbirths,” Garry added.
Defined as calves not delivered alive or dead within 48 hours of birth, the stillbirth rate on most dairies ranges between 8 to 10 percent. This figure is rarely counted with the calf mortality rate, even though it represents a fairly significant additional loss.
Calves that survive a difficult birth struggle before they hit the ground and have a “bigger hill to climb” in order to do well. By focusing on the delivery process and the post-delivery period, Garry said he believes these calves can get off to a better start, making them less likely to experience other difficulties such as infectious diseases in the first few weeks of life.
It starts with a successful delivery, which Garry defined as resulting in both a healthy, alert dam and baby. This is more than just pulling a calf, he said. Calving management requires frequent observation, paying attention to the stages of calving and intervention only when necessary.
A calf born with difficulty requires special attention above and beyond the normal newborn protocols. Ensuring that the calf’s respiratory system, circulation and metabolism are up and running means manually doing the cow’s job. It is the cow’s innate ability to stimulate these processes through nudging and licking the calf, but on many dairies, calves are removed from their mothers immediately at birth. Workers must be trained in how to emulate these mothering skills and monitor the calf for responsiveness. This may include propping the calf up to a sitting position for better air intake and blood flow, removing mucus from the nostrils, rubbing on the calf’s chest, and providing a supplemental heat source to maintain body temperature.
Colostrum is an important piece of this puzzle, too.
“Colostrum is incredibly powerful for more reasons than just immunoglobulins,” Garry stated. “The real magic is in providing standard nutrients, fluids and warmth.”
Garry said he believes there is opportunity for dairies to improve their calf death losses. Start by recording the deaths that occur at delivery or within the first 48 hours of birth and enlist a veterinarian to train workers on calving management and newborn care.
He advised, “Go home, monitor dystocia and get more information on how to deal with it better.”
Starting Strong - Calf Care
Transition and reproduction