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Don't kill your calves with kindness

Jim Salfer

Published in Dairy Star March 26, 2005

calf delivery

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:

Providing assistance

If and when calving assistance needs to be provided, follow these suggestions:

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.

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