Keep the baby calf alive
February 25, 2016
This has been a great February. Some of you are fighting a lot of mud, but the warm weather is great. The calf prices have decreased over the last six months. If we are going to have a profitable cow-calf operation, we need to increase calf survivability. It will take as many calves as possible to improve our efficiency.
The average cow-calf producer has a 5-8 percent death loss between birth and weaning. In the first 24 hours after birth 70 percent of the 5-8 percent death loss will occur. By day 3, 75 percent will die. That means in the next four to five months another 25 percent will die. As producers we need to focus our efforts on the very young calves. The newborn calf is forced to drastically change its lifestyle immediately after birth. In the uterus the calf is floating in fluid. In a very short time after birth, the lungs must inflate and the calf must breathe. Removing mucus and anything blocking the airway is very important. I've hung lots of calves by their hind legs after birth and watched fluid drain from the nostrils and mouth. Colleagues have told me this is abomassal fluid draining and has little effect on the calf. This may be true 95 percent of the time, but I have lost calves shortly after birth and feel it was an obstructed airway. We rub the calf to stimulate respirations and circulation. The cow usually licks and rubs the calf with her nose. It is easier for the calf to breath on his sternum (Head out and four legs under it). If the calf has labored breathing, oxygen may be administered with a small tube in the nostril. I have not had much success with breather bags and facemasks.
Shortly after birth the calf must be able to stand and walk. As the calf struggles to stand it expends energy and increases its body temperature. This is how the calf maintains its body temperature. The calf which is unable to stand rapidly loses body temperature. Imagine the change. We expect a calf to stand, walk and suckle within the first few hours after birth, while our own children require well over a year to walk. If a calf's temperature falls below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it is important to supply supplemental heat. Water bottles, warming boxes, or calf jackets and blankets with sufficient bedding are useful. The worst thing you can do is take the chilled calf and place it right in front of a Knipco heater. The draft and the intense heat cause respiratory problems in the calf.
The calf needs to suckle colostrum within several hours after birth. We usually think colostrum is responsible for immunity protecting the calf from disease. This is very important, but colostrum also provides energy, protein, vitamins and minerals allowing the calf the energy needed for activity. The warm fluids also help provide warmth as well as stimulate other bodily functions like respiration and circulation. The cow's colostrum is the best for the calf. If needed you can milk the cow and feed the calf. There are also new milk-based colostrum replacers. Heifers don't produce as high a quality colostrum as cows, so some producers supplementally feed colostrum to the calves of heifers.
The first few days of a calf's life are very important to not only the survivability but also the performance of the calf throughout its life. Consult with your veterinarian, extension specialist and nutritionalist to formulate a program for your herd. Vigilance and careful monitoring of birthing, mothering and colostral uptake will increase the opportunity for profit in your cow-calf enterprise.