How to Take Care of a Newborn Calf
The Importance of Colostrum for Calves
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Knowing how to take care of a newborn calf BEFORE calving season starts is crucial to his or her survival. After a calf is born, especially if it was a hard birth or you had to pull him, make sure he’s breathing. Then make sure he gets up and finds the udder. In most normal births, the calf will begin breathing within 30 to 60 seconds. If he doesn’t, clear the membranes and fluid away from his nose (and if necessary, pull fluid out of his nostrils with a suction bulb if you have one in your pocket) and tickle the inside of one nostril with a clean piece of hay or straw. This usually makes him cough and start breathing. If that doesn’t work, you may have to give him artificial respiration.
In the past, veterinarians often recommended holding a calf up by its hind legs to allow fluid to drain from the airways, but now they realize most of the fluid that drains out is from the stomach, and these fluids are important to the health of the calf. Holding the calf up by the hind legs is counterproductive, putting pressure on the diaphragm (from the abdominal organs), which may interfere with normal respiratory movements. It’s better to use a suction bulb (or even a turkey baster) to suction the airways. Another way to help stimulate a calf to breathe is to rub him briskly with a towel.
If a calf was stressed during a hard birth and does not start breathing immediately, this may be a sign he’s suffering from acidosis — a pH imbalance due to a shortage of oxygen — which can harm heart and lung function. It may take several hours or days for his body to correct this. One way to tell if the calf is normal or compromised is by how soon he lifts his head and positions himself upright rather than lying flat. After a normal birth, the calf should be looking around and trying to get up, within two to five minutes. If he just lies there, stimulate him by rubbing him to get his circulation going better and position him upright. Lung function and ribcage movement are impeded when he’s lying flat.
NAVEL CARE – After he starts breathing, disinfect the navel stump. If the cow calved on clean grass pasture there’s less chance for bacteria entering the navel and disinfecting the stump may not be necessary. But if she calves on dirt or mud/manure in a pen or dirty barn stall, there’s a risk for infection. Dip the navel stump in a tincture of iodine or chlorhexidine. Iodine has the added benefit of not only killing pathogens and also acting as an astringent to help the stump dry quickly and seal off.
An easy way to apply iodine is to dip the entire stump in a small wide-mouth jar containing ½ inch of iodine, putting it up to the abdomen and swishing it around, making sure the entire stump is saturated. If the navel cord broke off long and might drag on the ground, break it shorter before you immerse it in iodine. Leave a three to four-inch stump. Do this with very clean hands and pull it between your hands. Never create a jerk on the calf’s belly. Breaking it is better than cutting it; the stump is more apt to bleed if cut.
One application of iodine may not be enough to dry the stump quickly. You may have to repeat it a couple of times during the first 24 hours, to prevent navel infection. Bull calves take longer for the cord to dry since they often urinate while lying down — keeping the navel area wet.
On a rare occasion, you’ll encounter a calf with an umbilical hernia. If the opening is large, it needs to be surgically repaired. Sometimes the intestines will start to come out through the hole, or a loop will fall into the umbilical membrane. If intestines are falling out, take the calf to your vet, keeping the intestines clean by covering them with a towel. The vet may be able to replace them and stitch the hole.
If a loop of prolapsed intestine is encased in the navel cord, put the calf on his back and gently squeeze the intestine back up into the abdomen, then put an elastrator band over the umbilical membranes, next to the belly, to keep the hole tightly closed. It will usually grow together and seal off and the calf will be fine.
Occasionally a calf may bleed profusely when the navel cord breaks. Halt it with a clamp of some kind (like a hair clip) or tie it with string for a couple of hours to stop the bleeding.
COLOSTRUM – Make sure the calf nurses soon after birth. If he doesn’t accomplish this on his own, guide him to the udder or feed him by bottle, stomach tube, or esophageal feeder if he can’t nurse his mother. The cow’s first milk is crucial to the health and survival of the calf. It contains a creamy fat that gives him energy (and helps him generate body warmth in cold weather) and acts as a laxative to pass his first bowel movements.
Colostrum also provides antibodies against disease. Some antibodies are absorbed directly into his blood and lymph systems (passing through the intestinal wall) if he nurses soon enough. The antibodies help fight systemic infections, attacking pathogens like Pasteurella, Streptococcus, or Salmonella that might cause septicemia. Other antibodies stay in the gut to attack scours-causing pathogens the calf might ingest.
If the cow was on a good vaccination program before calving, she’ll have strong immunity and the antibodies in her colostrum will give her calf immediate protection from many diseases as soon as he nurses. It does no good to vaccinate the cow against scour-causing E. coli, rotavirus, or coronavirus, however, if the calf doesn’t nurse within a few hours of birth. If he is unable to nurse, give him substitute colostrum from another cow, some thawed frozen colostrum (that you saved for emergencies), or a commercial product. A cow on your own place has better colostrum than a commercial product, however, because she creates the antibodies needed to protect a calf in your environment.
A partial feeding of frozen or a commercial substitute can be used to “jump-start” a calf if you think it will stimulate him to nurse his dam right away. But a part feeding can be counterproductive if he doesn’t ingest a full meal soon. The little bit you fed him stimulates the “open” gut to close more quickly and he won’t be able to absorb any more antibodies. If he won’t be nursing his mother soon, give him a full feeding.
When he’s born, a calf can absorb large antibody molecules directly through the intestinal lining into the bloodstream and lump system, but pathogens can also slip through. It’s a race between pathogens and antibodies, so make sure the antibodies get there first. Other ingredients in colostrum coat the gut and provide a different type of antibody to combat pathogens ingested during the calf’s first hours of life. If the “good guys” in colostrum get to the gut first, they close the door to pathogenic organisms, preventing the penetration of the intestinal lining by bacteria and their toxins.
Stress can shorten the window of opportunity for absorbing antibodies, however. Cold weather, hot weather, difficult birth, or any other stress makes it crucial to get colostrum into the calf immediately. Antibody levels obtained by calves at first nursing are significantly lower in calves that experienced a difficult birth, even when the cow is milked immediately after calving and the calf is force-fed. If he was short on oxygen during birth, he may suffer from temporary acidosis, which inhibits the gut from efficiently absorbing antibodies. The best thing you can do for the calf is to get the colostrum into him as soon as possible.
What other tips would you share with someone who is learning how to take care of a newborn calf? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.