Newborn calf losses impact bottom line |

Newborn calf losses impact bottom line

Newborn calves should be on their feet in less than an hour if they receive good mothering from the dam, Garry said.
Photo by Teresa Clark

With input costs on the rise, producers need to be diligent about saving every baby calf they can.

“For every baby calf you save that could have weaned 550 pounds, if that calf dies, the only way to make it up is revenue,” according to Dr. Frank Garry, DVM, veterinary extension at Colorado State University. “You’ve already put all your input costs into the cow, so you basically have to increase weaning weight on the next 11 calves by 50 pounds. If you wean 600 pound calves, you will need to increase weaning weight 50 pounds on the next 12 calves.”

The majority of calf deaths occur very early in the post-partum period, and the No. 1 cause is dystocia. Half of those deaths occur within the first 24 hours, Garry said, and 70 percent are within the first three days. Most are caused by physiological problems.

“The transition from living in the uterus to living outside the uterus is the single largest physiological transition the animal will ever make until it dies,” Garry said. “Every single organ system in the animal changes as it exits the uterus.”

When the calf is born, it is leaving a heated swimming pool.

“At that point, the calf has to completely and radically shift what they do with fluids in order to maintain profusion of tissues with blood,” he explained. “In-utero, the calf is maintained in a thermo-regulated environment. At birth, it is exposed to whatever the weather is, and it needs to be able to generate some heat or it will die.”

Calves come from a low oxygen environment, so at birth, they have to make their lungs work so they can expand and blood can travel through. “As the calf moves its chest, it expands the lungs changing the pressure inside the thorax,” Garry said. “If the calf doesn’t have enough oxygen, it doesn’t have strength. If it doesn’t have strength, it can’t move. If it can’t move, it can’t expand its chest to get oxygen. It’s a vicious cycle,” the veterinarian said. “The calf needs to be strong, active and vibrant to start moving, or it’s in distress.”

Newborn calves are born with less blood volume than what they need to maintain a healthy blood pressure. “No matter what the temperature is, they need to dry off because they are losing body heat,” Garry said. The calf will also need to urinate to remove outside pressure on the kidneys that causes too much fluid to build up.


Garry warns producers to pay attention to calves that are quiet and not moving around. On a cold day, these calves aren’t generating body heat, which may make them more prone to frostbite and scours. “If you have a compromised calf that is weak and lethargic, it will have low blood oxygen, which causes low body temperature and heat loss,” he said. “It won’t be breathing as well to produce oxygen for the blood. This delays the intake of colostrum, which delays the absorption of energy, protein, trace minerals and immunoglobins that are important for the calf to maintain the physiological capability to stay alive.”

If the calf doesn’t get up and nurse, it is decreasing its disease resistance, Garry said. “It is important for ranchers to be able to identify the calves that need assistance. Ask yourselves a few simple questions. Is it lethargic or inactive? Did it stand in a reasonable amount of time? Is it suckling, and does it have good suckle response? How long did it take to nurse, and what is its body temperature?”

“Newborn calves should be born from an uncomplicated vaginal delivery,” Garry said. “If it is born with any level of dystocia, it needs your help. These calves will be more challenged, physiologically, to adapt than a normal calf.”

Newborn calves should be on their feet in less than an hour if they receive good mothering from the dam. Neonatal death loss from heifers occurs because heifers are not as capable or trained to provide the kind of mothering a calf needs, Garry said.

Typically, calves are born with a body temperature of 104 degrees. It is common for their body temperature to drop to 101 degrees, but if it drops below that, something is wrong, he said. The calf should also be actively suckling within two hours of birth. “Good mothers make their calves respond by licking, nudging and helping it find the udder by licking its butt.”.

Garry finds it is rare for a rancher, with a lethargic, poor-doing calf, to stick a thermometer in its rectum to determine the body temperature. “Calves that don’t have a normal body temperature need your help,” he told producers.

If a calf is compromised, Garry said producers need to be prepared to intervene by stimulating and enhancing respiration and oxygen of the blood by vigorously rubbing the calf’s chest, belly and body, and removing mucus from the airway.

The calf should be positioned so the lungs are vertical allowing the calf to breathe easier. Garry recommends putting the calf in sternal recumbency so its lying on its chest. “The calf won’t like it, but it is what a good mother would do,” he said.

The calf may also need oxygen. Tickle the nostrils with an oxygen tube, placing the tube in the nostril and taping it down. The oxygen should be regulated with a flow meter, if possible. Producers also need to be careful to avoid the esophagus, which will send the oxygen into the abomasum.

Garry recommends having a supplemental heat source, blankets, towels, and a hair dryer on hand to warm up chilled calves. The calves should also receive colostrum within two hours of birth, even if the producer has to milk the dam and give the colostrum through an esophagus feeder. ❖

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at

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