by Elizabeth A. Tomlin

Forty percent of calves stressed at birth will die by three weeks of age. Those are the statistics.

Presenters at Session 2 of Cornell CALS and PRO-DAIRY’s Calving and Neonatal Calf Care Training, including Dr. Robert A. Lynch, PRO-DAIRY; Dr. Kimberley Morrill, Cornell North Country Regional Ag Team Dairy Management Specialist; Dr. Jerry Bertoldo, Dairy Management Specialist Cornell (recently retired), and CNY CCE Regional Dairy Specialist Dave Balbian, instructed attendees on best management practices for neonatal calves to keep those calves thriving.

The average cost of raising a replacement heifer in New York State is more than $2,000 reported Dr. Lynch, citing a report from PRO-DAIRY Dairy Farm Economic Business Management Consultant, Jason Karszes.

“That’s just to raise that calf to first-calving.”

Patiently observing and efficiently implementing proactive care of each calf results in lower medical costs and can improve herd genetics down the line. Sickness in heifers has been shown to have a long-term effect on future productivity; impacting both reproduction and quality of milk.

Setting goals for getting calves off to the best start possible is key.

Hygiene in the maternity pen will pay off by helping to eliminate bacteria when the calf enters the world.

High risk calves, such as twins, triplets, small or overly large calves, premature, embryos — and any calves resulting from a dystocia, should be identified (flagged) and require extra care and observation.

“Don’t use excessive force getting the calf out,” instructed Dr. Morrill.

Morrill said dystocia calves usually are in pain and may have unseen trauma. If they survive, these calves should be tracked and monitored diligently.

“All calves, whether bull calves or heifers should be treated the same in the maternity pen.”

Newborn calves should show signs of active respiratory movement within 30 seconds of birth.

If the calf has no heartbeat it is not viable. However, if there is a heartbeat, but the calf is not breathing, it may be stimulated by vigorously rubbing its sides with towels or bedding. This will also help to stimulate body temperature regulation.

Place the calf in a “sternal recumbency” position to maximize airway ventilation. If no help is available, this may be accomplished by using bales of hay on either side of the calf for support. Clear the mouth and nose of any fluid or mucus, by hand or suctioning.

Although mouth-to-mouth resuscitation has frequently been attempted, Morrill noted that it is challenging to form a seal around a calf’s mouth and nose. Another complication is that air may be pushed down the esophagus, further compromising the calf’s ability to breath.

“Never hang the calf upside down,” Morrill emphasized.

Morrill said it’s also important not to over inflate the calf’s lungs when using positive pressure ventilation.

Once the calf is breathing it should begin to shiver, raising its body temperature.

Umbilical stumps must be treated with an iodine/ betadine solution — or whatever your veterinarian recommends. Hemorrhage from the umbilicus is an emergency situation and needs immediate attention.

Now is the time to check the calf for trauma.

“We might not notice it right away,” Morrill said, explaining that calves may have broken ribs or legs, spinal fractures, hip displacement, head trauma or any combination of these.

Close examination will help to determine if there are injuries.

A swollen tongue will definitely impede the calf’s ability to nurse and swallow.

Morrill explained that premature calves are less tolerant of temperature changes and a difficult birth affects the calf’s normal reactions.

“Their central nervous system does not function as well.”

A normal calf will move its head within minutes after birth and breathing and be able to hold itself in a sternal position, unaided, after 5 minutes. It should attempt to stand within 15 minutes, and should be standing within an hour.

It is recommended to remove the calf from the maternity pen into a clean, dry, warm and well-ventilated pen or calf box quickly. This will help lower the incidence of bacteria exposure and also prevent the calf from being injured by the cow or her maternity mates.

“If you see a cow step on the calf, notate it!”

Be careful not to make the calf too warm, and never put the calf into a warming box with a calf-jacket on.

Getting high quality colostrum into the calf as soon as possible is critical, and all dairy farms — and beef for that matter — should have a strong high-quality colostrum feeding program implemented.

The 3-Q system for colostrum: ‘Quality, Quantity, Quickly’, is mandatory for producing a healthy calf. Bagged colostrum products are available. Check labels for quality and strictly follow feeding instructions.

Colostrum must be absorbed by the calf within a 12-hour window to be of benefit. It is advised to feed each calf at least 1-gallon of colostrum by bottle, or if necessary, with an esophageal feeder.

Proper technique for using an esophageal feeder was demonstrated through a video. It is important to note that the calf must have its nose below the ears to avoid injury to it’s throat when being treated. The tube should be inserted on the left side of the calf’s mouth.

The first colostrum feeding should take place as soon as possible; within the first hour of life is ideal, but certainly before the calf is 4-hours-old.

A Brix refractometer can be used estimate colostrum quality.

Patience and time may be required when feeding a new calf, as some have a weak or slow suckle response.

Aspiration resulting in pneumonia is commonly caused by improper use of esophageal feeders when feeding colostrum — or from nipples with holes that are too large. Closely monitor swallowing to avoid choking the calf.

An esophageal feeder may also be used when treating dehydrated calves.

Sanitizing esophageal feeders, bottles and nipples can be challenging, but is essential to prevent bacteria build-up that is then delivered into the calf.

Clean bedding and clean air are also essential to maintaining a healthy calf.

“Keep that whole environment clean!” emphasized Dr. Bertoldo.

Protect calves from cold, wind, rain, extreme heat, dust and aerosolized pathogens and other stress.

Protocol should include practicing bio-security, minimizing spread of bacteria from external sources.

Cold temperatures necessitate extra calories.

Observe calves from a distance to be sure they are eating, drinking and resting comfortably.

Watch for nasal or eye discharge and listen for coughing or signs of respiratory disease.

It is advised to take calves’ rectal temperatures several times a week, weigh them, and keep good records on each.

Communication with (and between) calf care personnel is also important. Be sure each calf handler is trained to specifically work with neonatal calves, understands all calf protocol, and has means to contact other workers quickly when needed.

Identify calves at risk and proactively manage herd health.

Focus on colostrum management, a clean, dry environment, solid health screening, and optimal nutrition for all calves.

These calving workshops were hosted by Insight Dairy, Newville, NY.

For more information contact Dave Balbian at