When “the way we’ve always done it” is wrong: Tips for smoother calving and healthier calves
There are many “traditional” practices and old wives tales about how to assist a birth or get a newborn calf breathing—some of which are valid and helpful, and some that are not. Dr. Bill Lias with Interstate Vet Clinic, Brandon, South Dakota, says that over the years that he’s been a veterinarian he has seen a change in some of the trends, and there are also a few things he’d rather not see happen.
Dr. Cody Creelman, who is part of Veterinary Agri-Health services, a five-veterinarian beef cattle practice at Airdrie, Alberta (just north of Calgary), says some practices are actually harmful, even though they were recommendations from veterinarians in earlier times.
Getting a calf on the ground
Most ranchers know they should use a double half-hitch when placing chains on the calf’s legs for pulling, with one loop mid-cannon and the other below the fetlock joint. “Some people don’t understand where the chain should be, between those two points,” says Creelman.
“It should be on the top of the leg, in 12 o’clock position if the calf is coming normally. This applies most of the force and stress along the strongest part (and angle) of the leg bone and is much better than having it underneath or to one side of the leg. Having the chain on top of the leg provides the most leverage when doing a forced extraction, and safest for the calf, to prevent injury to the leg.
“Even if you can only get one loop around the leg when first applying chains (when the legs are still inside the cow and you don’t have much room to work), after the legs are coming into the birth canal you have more room to reposition the chains, before you put a lot of force on the calf. Always have the double half hitch before you use a calf jack,” he says.
“Make sure the calf’s elbows are through the pelvis before applying too much pressure, because they may hang up and make extraction difficult or impossible. Pull on each leg individually until the elbow comes through. You can often feel/hear a pop as it comes through and the leg is finally straight. Then you can put more equal pressure on both legs as you pull the calf,” he says.
Make sure the head is actually starting through the birth canal and not turning off to one side.
“When using a calf jack, be aware that the amount of force you can apply is far greater than what can be applied by human strength. A calf jack can apply as much force as four strong men pulling together, which is too much. A calf jack can cause a lot of damage to the cow and calf if not appropriately applied. Also we hear horror stories of hooking a quad or tractor to those chains. If that much force is required, we need a different kind of intervention, such as a Caesarean section or a fetotomy (cutting up the calf to bring it out, if the calf is already dead).”
Oversize calf is the typical cause of dystocia. “Rules of thumb that I use, to determine if the calf is too large to come out, is if the legs are crossing. This usually means the calf is wide in the shoulders and may be too wide to come out. Also, if you are having trouble with the head going back or off to the side and not coming into the birth canal, this may mean it is too large,” says Creelman.
C-sections can be a solution
“As I’ve aged and gained experience there are some things I do differently now,” said Lias. “For instance, the option of doing a C-section is something we consider sooner now.” In the past, people tried harder and longer to get a calf out, before resorting to surgery, and sometimes those calves didn’t survive or the cow was irreparably injured.
“As technology and surgical methods improved, and educating veterinarians about the surgery, we’re reached a point where C-sections today are straightforward and routine, and easier to do,” he says. Cows have an excellent recovery rate, and so do the calves if surgery is done early while the calf is still alive.
“The outcome is great. I think back to earlier in my career when some of the dystocias we dealt with were horrible wrestling matches. When we got done, we wished we’d done a C-section, because it would have been a lot better for everyone,” says Lias.
When you encounter a dystocia it is important to take time to do a thorough exam and figure out why the cow is not having that calf. “Explore a bit and figure out the presentation of the calf and how big it is. How big is the cow? Is it a fetal oversize issue or a malposition? Then you can make your decision on which route would be the best, and make a good decision before you get into a wreck,” Lias says.
“If you’ve already applied a lot of traction and the calf is partway out and locked at the hips, it’s too late to do a C-section. You’ve already messed things up. In this day and age, producers should have no aversion to doing a C-section, because most veterinarians are very competent. Some producers who live in remote areas where it is difficult to get a veterinarian have learned to do the surgery themselves, and do a good job of it and have good success. This can solve a lot of bad dystocias,” he says.
Once the calf is on the ground, breathing is the next order of business. Traditional wisdom says when a newborn calf isn’t breathing, hang it upside-down, or swing it, theoretically to allow fluid to drain from the airways.
More study has determined that’s not the best way to handle it. “This is no longer standard practice,” Creelman said. “You will see fluid coming from the calf’s mouth and nose, but it’s been proven that this is mainly fluid from the stomach. It makes it harder for the calf to breath, being swung or hanging upside down, because of all the weight of the gut putting pressure on the lungs.”
“The fluid in the stomach is beneficial to the calf and you don’t want it to be draining out,” says Lias. “All you are doing by hanging the calf is having that stomach fluid run out, with danger of the calf aspirating some of that fluid.”
Creelman advises people to put the newborn calf in recovery position (upright, rather than flat) resting on the sternum, with head and neck extended forward. “This allows for maximum oxygenation in the lungs because they can both expand more fully.” This is better than the calf lying on its side because the bottommost lung can’t expand.
“If the calf is upright there is a better ratio of oxygenation and blood flow. And extending the head forward allows for an open airway,” he says. This position also allows some of the fluid and mucus from the nostrils to drain out.
If a calf is still conscious, and simply not breathing, Lias advises producers to use vigorous massage over the chest/thorax, or even some light compression, like giving CPR, to start moving some air in and out of the lungs. “I also routinely use a piece of hay or straw to tickle inside the nostril. This causes a snuffle/cough reflex to initiate that first breath,” says Lias.
“Also helpful is the Jen Chung (GV-26) acupuncture technique,” says Creelman. “There is an acupuncture/acupressure spot at the tip of the nose. If this is pressed or poked, it stimulates the central nervous system. This will increase heart and respiration rate and consciousness. We teach ranchers to use a very small diameter needle, like a 20 gauge needle, poking right into the center of the tip of the nose, and giving it a little twist. This will stimulate breathing,” he says.
“Another technique some producers use is cold water. If the calf is limp and not breathing, they splash a bucket of cold water over the calf’s head. Some producers even pour a little cold water into the calf’s ear, to stimulate him to shake his head and wake him up and get him breathing. It’s like jumping into a cold lake; you gasp. It stimulates those natural reflexes, to take a breath,” says Creelman.
If the calf has been short of oxygen and is unconscious and won’t start breathing, you can give artificial respiration. Position the calf on its side, with head and neck stretched forward to open the airway and make sure the air will go into the windpipe and not the esophagus. Then you can blow into one nostril, holding the other nostril (and the calf’s mouth) shut.
“In most cases, the heart is still beating, but the calf is just unconscious and not breathing. Very rarely will you be able to revive a calf if the heart has stopped.”
Even if the calf is limp, blue and looks dead, if there is a heartbeat you have a chance to revive him. You can generally feel or see the heartbeat, because it is pounding very hard. While giving the calf artificial respiration, blowing into his nostril, if you are watching his chest (to see if it rises as you blow in a breath of air, and then letting it back out), you can often see the heart thumping.
“One more little trick is to apply light pressure (with your free hand) to the esophagus, just below the larynx—a little higher than mid-neck. This helps close off the esophagus, to ensure you are not just filling the stomach with air. You don’t want to push so hard that you close off the trachea, too, since it is soft cartilage, but you can prevent air from going into the stomach,” says Creelman.
“There are also some pharmaceutical interventions we can give a calf to stimulate him to breathe. Depending on the producer’s skill level, we may provide resuscitation drugs that might be used in some cases, to stimulate the central nervous system. This product would be given into and under the tongue,” says Creelman. Your veterinarian can show you how to do this, and advise you on dosage.
Antibiotics are not a cure-all
“One practice I’d rather not see is producers giving every calf antibiotics at birth,” says Creelman. “This is poor management and can do more harm than good. If you do have a chronic problem with navel ill or scours, this is a more of a management problem rather than something you can head off with antibiotics. Navel ill issues are likely poor colostrum management and/or poor sanitation in the calving environment. Scours are generally not due to some weird bug that is circulating in the herd, but has more to do with the calving environment. If you are having those kinds of problems, antibiotics are not going to resolve them. You need to focus on best management practices, instead,” says Creelman.
“Use of antibiotics is not benign. They have to be processed by the liver and kidneys (and may have harmful effects) and may also kill the natural ‘good’ bacteria in the digestive or respiratory tract. Antibiotics may do more harm than good, so they should only be used as recommended by the veterinarian,” he says.
If a calf is chilled at birth, many producers use a blow drier or put the cold calf in a warming box that blows warm air. “This is adequate for mild hypothermia to dry that calf and get body temperature back up. A severely cold calf, however, needs more immediate warming; hot air is not enough to bring core body temperature up quickly enough. Use warm water immersion in a sink or bathtub, to warm them up quicker,” says Creelman.
You also need to make sure they have energy, immediately, to help them produce body heat. If the calf is too cold to suck, force-feeding warm colostrum by tube can provide that instant energy and also help warm the body core. “They’ve used up their stored energy as their body temperature dropped, in their effort to stay warm. They need immediate colostrum.”