Skip to Content

The Weekly News Source for Wyoming's Ranchers, Farmers and AgriBusiness Community

Simple steps improve the chance of compromised calves to reach weaning

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

When calves are born with dystocia, Frank Garry, veterinarian, notes that producers can play an active role to help save their lives with several steps.

“My advice is that any calf born with any degree of dystocia might need our help,” he adds. “Calves should be born from an uncomplicated vaginal delivery. Even if they look ok, historically, calves born with any trouble are more challenged than normal calves.”

Garry also notes that calves born to heifers may need additional help because heifers may be incapable of providing the good mothering that calves need.

“Good calf management will help that,” Garry comments.

Upright positioning

Research out of the Netherlands assessed that the amount of time it took a calf to properly orient its head and move onto its sternum, the time it took to attempt to stand and the time it took to stand.

“Healthy calves should put their head right in three minutes, move onto their sternum in five minutes, attempt to stand in 20 minutes and stand in 60 minutes,” Garry says. “These are easy things to measure.”

Calves that took longer than 15 minutes to move to their sternum were 84 percent more likely to die.

“Active suckling should take place in less than two hours,” he adds, “and the calves should be attentive, responsive and active.”


In a normal routine, calves will also receive good mothering from their dam, but occasionally – and especially with heifers, maternal instinct is lacking.

“We select for maternal instinct, but the cow also has to learn,” Garry says. “There is also a thin line between mothering and aggression.”

Heifers that are unsure of what to do either reject their calf or beat it up.

“After their second calf, good mommas can help take care of the liabilities our calves may experience,” he says. “They push it, nudge it, lick it and dry it to make sure the calves responds.”

Mother cows also lick their calf on the butt to encourage nursing.

“If the dam doesn’t do these things, we may need to supplement what the dam does or replace her,” Garry comments. “We should also do what the dam is supposed to – rub it on the butt, so it will put its head out and start looking for food.”


To help calves born with any problems, Garry encourages producers to follow a series of steps to improve their chances.

“These are things that many ranchers already know, and they should be prepared to do them all in synchrony,” he says. “We should help the calf maintain body temperature, increase blood volume, provide energy to the calf and oxygenate the blood.”

If calves are pulled, Garry mentions that producers should monitor them for at least 20 minutes.

“Calves might move well at the beginning because they are punch-drunk on adrenaline,” he says. “In 15 to 17 minutes, we should assume the calf is going to get quieter.”

Influencing respiration

If calves aren’t moving to the sternum within the first 15 minutes after birth, Garry says producers should position them in sternal recumbancy and get the mucus out of the airway to help them to breathe.

By posing calves on their sternum, the lungs are vertical rather than horizontal, enabling them to breathe easier.

“It also does something else – it pisses the calf off,” Garry comments. “They don’t like it, but it is what a good mom would do.”

“Then we have to stimulate it to breathe,” he adds. “Most people do this by tickling the nostrils.”

Garry advocates using an oxygen tube and administering oxygen to compromised calves. When administering oxygen, he notes that a tube should be inserted up the nose of the calf but not beyond the level of the eye to avoid channeling oxygen to the stomach.

“We have oxygen tanks on our places because most of us have oxy-acetylene torches,” he says. “Adjust the oxygen to an appropriate rate. If we don’t have a flow meter, adjust it so it makes our cheek cool.”

He adds, “Make sure the oxygen doesn’t go into the belly and that it gets to the lungs.”

Body temperature

“Calves that don’t have a normal body temperature need our help,” says Garry. “It is simple to do.”

Garry also notes that the body temperature of a calf should not drop below 101 degrees.

“Calves are born at about 104 degrees,” he says. “In the first half hour, it will drop to 101, but if it keeps going down, something is wrong.”

He encourages producers to take the temperature of calves that are doing poorly to make sure their body temperature isn’t too low.

Calves maintain their body temperature by generating heat, but if the calf is losing too much heat, it can be difficult.

“We want the calf on a dry surface, and we want to provide supplemental heat,” he says, noting that producers may use heaters, hot water bottles or warming huts. “Another way is to provide the calf with a hot drink or warm it with a hair dryer. We can also provide heat lamps. All of these are options, depending on how bad our calf is.”

Finally, Garry mentions that calves must consume colostrum to provide immunoglobulin, micronutrients, fluids and warmth.

“We want to stimulate and enhance respiration, maintain body temperature and provide energy,” he says. “Those are the key things to taking care of physiologically challenged calves.”

Garry spoke in mid-November 2015 during the Range Beef Cow Symposium in Loveland, Colo.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

Back to top