Don't kill your calves with kindness
Color and reflex of the tongue is one method to determine if the calf is under distress.
Are you killing your calves by trying to be kind to your cows? Many dairy producers are. It is estimated that the loss to the dairy industry due to stillborn calves (calves born dead or that die within 48 hours of birth) is over $125 million dollars per year. The average stillbirth rate on Holstein heifers is over 13% and is on the increase.
A common belief is that when a calf is stillborn, intervention was not taken early enough in the calving process. This is sometimes true. However, many times calves are stillborn because we intervene by trying to assist with the birth too early and too aggressively. Or, this may result in newborn calves with fractured ribs and vertebra. These calves are weak at birth, have a difficult time breathing and standing, and many die in the first days of life. It is not being suggested here that we should never assist with a calving. Rather, we should be patient and intervene only when necessary.
It is important that everyone who works with cows at calving time know how and when to assist with calving. And if there is any doubt about what you are doing, call your veterinarian for help. Here are some guidelines to follow to minimize the number of stillbirths:
- Evaluate the calf position early. Early recognition of any potential problem is the key to delivering a live and healthy calf. If calves need to be repositioned, it is much easier to do it early in labor. Calves coming backwards should be delivered that way. This presentation is considered normal in dairy cattle. If calves are in the normal position, assistance should only be given if the calf is in distress or when it is clear the cow will not be able to deliver the calf without assistance.
- Evaluate the size of the calf. This can be done by observing the size of the hoof. Larger hooves are associated with larger calves.
- Some signs that the calf is in distress include:
- Pinch the tongue between contractions. If there is no reflex, the calf may be under distress. The color of tongue should be pink except during contractions, when it may turn dark red or purple caused by the compressing of the umbilical cord. A tongue that stays dark between contractions is a sign the calf is under stress and may need assistance.
- Look for blood or pieces of cotyledon during the delivery. These are indications that the placenta has a tear and the calf should be delivered immediately.
- Do not assist too early and do not use some arbitrary timeline from when the cow began labor or when you see the calf’s feet, unless the cow is obviously fatigued and cannot deliver the calf. Cows moved and/or distracted relatively early in the labor process often stop labor progress. Maintain patience and wait for the cow to resume labor.
Typical Cervical Dilation
24 or more in.
Source: H. Tyler, ISU, 2003
- Cows delivering twins typically require some assistance. Remember that with twins there may be a significant time between the birth of the first and second calf. The cow and uterine muscles are often tired after delivery of the first calf. If the second calf is in the normal position, the delivery is often easy, but slight assistance may be required.
If and when calving assistance needs to be provided, follow these suggestions:
- Be prepared and be clean. Use sleeves. Use plenty of obstetrical or other lubricant to help aid in delivery. Do not use soap. That will wash off the normal lubricant within the reproductive tract.
- Do not apply too much force. Remember you are assisting the cow. Apply force in unison with her uterine contractions. The shoulder may come through the birth canal easier if you can pull on each leg alternately.
- Pull the calf parallel to the cow until the head and shoulders are delivered. Then, pull down at a 45° angle to make delivery easier.
- Rest after the last rib is out of the cow. Allow the calf to rotate a little to finish the delivery. This also allows the transfer of blood from the placenta to the calf prior to umbilical rupture.
Immediate care after delivery
After delivery, attention should turn to the calf, unless the cow is in apparent distress. Remove any tissue around the calf’s nose and mouth. Breathing should begin with a gasp or a cough. If a calf is struggling to start breathing, try applying cold water to the face of the calf or stick a finger or a piece of straw in the nostril to tickle the nostril. However, do not stick anything deep into the nasal passage. And, do not hang the calf upside down by the rear legs in an attempt to drain fluid from the lungs as this will cause all the digestive organs to press against the diaphragm making it harder for the calf to breath.
With close observation as calving approaches and by proper intervention when necessary, the number of stillborn calves can be kept to a minimum. If there are too many occurrences on your dairy farm, work with your herd veterinarian and other agriculture professionals to investigate the cause. Properly train all personnel. Large numbers of high quality replacements are the key to your future. Let’s not be killing our calves by trying to be too kind to our cows.
Published in Dairy Star March 26, 2005