Best practice on how to assist at calving

Learn how to assess if the cow needs your assistance – and how to support the calf in the best possible way immediately after birth.

The calving process and the first few important minutes after the birth can be crucial for the rest of the calf’s life. But when is it necessary to intervene and assist the cow during calving and when should you leave her alone?

When you pull at the calf’s leg, the normal calving process is interrupted. During the last part of the calving process, there is an important transfer of blood from the placenta or the afterbirth to the calf. This transfer may be interrupted if you start pulling the calf prematurely.

Untimely calving assistance also increases the risk of a retained placenta. Thus, you should leave the cow to itself to the extent possible if the calving is proceeding normally.

It can easily take about an hour from the time the legs become visible in the opening of the birth canal until the calf is delivered. The important thing is that the birth progresses. Photo: SEGES

When to pull the calf?

Even though it may be tempting to pull at the calf’s legs, it should be avoided if it is not necessary. During a normal calving, it can easily take about an hour from the time the legs become visible until the calf is completely out. The important thing is that the birth progresses.

If you discover a calving where the calf’s legs and perhaps muzzle are visible, then make a mental note of how far along the calf is and leave the cow/heifer to itself for about 20-30 minutes. Then go back and check for any progress. In case of progress, leave the cow alone for another 20-30 minutes.

If you do not see any progress, you should bring your calving equipment, wash the cow and the visible parts of the calf, thoroughly apply birth lubricant and make sure that the calf is positioned correctly. You should also check if the internal birth canal feels normal and if the size of the calf is proportional to the cow’s pelvis.

If the calf is positioned correctly and you estimate that there is enough space, you can pull the calf at the same time as the cow pushes.

The calf’s breathing

Often, the calf starts breathing on its own when the head is out. Normally, the cow has natural breaks between the contractions, which give the calf the opportunity to breathe.

If the breathing does not begin spontaneously when the calf is born, the breathing reflex can often be activated by tickling the calf with a clean straw in one of its nostrils. he breathing may also be stimulated by rubbing the calf’s chest by throwing cold water at its head or chest.

It is a good idea to place the newborn calf with its head below its chest. This creates as much room as possible in the calf’s chest cavity, thus facilitating the calf’s breathing.

Mucus in the calf’s mouth and respiratory passages

Previously, it was common to hang the newborn calf across a gate or the wall of the calving box to remove the mucus from its respiratory passages.

Today we know that this is, in fact, quite unsuitable as the organs in the calf’s abdominal cavity are then pushed towards the midriff which reduces the chest cavity and worsens the breathing. Therefore, this should only be done if the calving has been hard or prolonged. Do not let the calf hang for more than a minute

Perhaps you have witnessed how fluid or mucus could run out of the mouth of a hanging calf. The fluid or mucus is, however, more likely to come from the intestinal canal than the respiratory passages. You can remove any mucus from the calf’s mouth – but then you should have clean hands! Otherwise the calf can be infected with diarrheal diseases.

Check the sucking reflex. If it is weak, it is very likely that the calf will not drink enough colostrum on its own. Photo: SEGES

Check the calf’s sucking reflex

A Canadian study focuses on connections between the calving processes, the calves’ vitality and their intake of colostrum. Even though the study is carried out on beef cattle, there is good reason to believe that the connections discovered also apply to dairy cattle.

The calf’s sucking reflex has turned out to be a good measure of its vitality. If you are in doubt about the calf’s vitality (for example because of a long or difficult calving) it might be a good idea to check its sucking reflex about 10 minutes after its birth by putting a couple of clean fingers into the calf’s mouth. If the calf’s sucking reflex is poor, it is very likely that it will not be able to drink enough colostrum on its own within the critical first 4 hours.

An examination of blood tests from calves with poor sucking reflexes shows that these calves often also have a low pH value and a high level of lactic acid in their blood. This means that their uptake of antibodies from the colostrum is also reduced. Thus, the “weak” calves are much more in danger of being off to a bad start on life.
Acting fast can be the difference between success or failure.

Help the calf to drink

Calves with poor sucking reflexes need a helping hand. A fast administration of colostrum may be crucial to stabilizing the calf.

Administer the recommended 3-4 liters (equaling 10% of the calf’s birth weight) of quality colostrum as soon as possible. If the calf cannot drink from a bottle, feeding it through a stomach tube will do the trick.

In production systems, where the cow normally nurses her own calf, the calf should be helped to nurse from its mom. If it is not well enough to suckle, feeding through a stomach tube is the solution.

Keep the calf warm

It is important that the newborn calf does not get cold and weakens. If the cow does not immediately start to lick its calf clean, the calf should be rubbed dry with clean straw or a towel, so it does not cool down.

This is especially important among weak newborn calves that need more time to activate their muscles in order to create body warmth on their own. Using a heat lamp and a calf blanket can be important steps to saving calves with a bad start on life. 

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