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Ranchers can intervene to help compromised calves begin to breathe after birth

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

In a normal birth, the calf is stimulated to breathe as soon as his umbilical cord breaks and his face and nose are uncovered when the amniotic sac comes off his head.  

There are several causes for breathing failure in a newborn calf.  These include the sac not breaking, a hard birth in which the calf is exhausted or unconscious from too much pressure for too long in the birth canal and the placenta detaching too soon.

Some calves are born with the amniotic sac intact, often with fluid still in it. If the membrane and fluids remain over the calf’s nostrils, it won’t take a breath. This immersion reflex keeps him from drawing fluid into his lungs, but it also means some calves die soon after birth – unless the cow gets up immediately and starts licking the sac off and nudging the calf to get moving and breathing.  

If the calf goes too long without oxygen, it suffocates.

Simulating breathing

In most normal births, the calf begins breathing within 60 seconds after he’s born.  

If it’s not breathing, ranchers should clear the fluid away from his nose with their fingers and tickle the inside of one nostril with a clean piece of hay or straw. This usually makes it cough and take a breath.  

If the calf is unconscious and won’t start breathing, give artificial respiration.

Traditionally, compromised calves, meaning those that are not breathing, were held up by their hind legs to allow fluid to drain from the airways, but now many veterinarians don’t recommend this.  

They explain most of the fluids that drain from an upside-down calf are stomach fluids. Holding it up by the hind legs puts pressure on his diaphragm from abdominal organs, interfering with normal breathing movements. 

Instead, veterinarians suggest it’s better to use a suction bulb to clear the airways.


If a calf was stressed during birth and doesn’t begin breathing immediately, it may be because it is suffering from acidosis – a pH imbalance caused by stress and shortage of oxygen during birth, which has an adverse effect on proper function of heart and lungs.  

It may take several hours for his body to correct this. 

Offering assistance

One way to tell if a calf is normal or compromised, according to veterinarian Ron Skinner of Drummond, Mont., is whether it tries to raise his head rather than continuing to lie flat.  

Skinner says if the calf just lies there and has not tried to raise his head within two minutes, prop him up and rub him briskly to stimulate circulation. The calf can breathe better if it is upright, and lung function and ribcage movement are impeded when he’s lying flat.

Taking time

“Ranchers can take their time when pulling the calf, and if they only pull as the cow pushes, they only have to pull half as hard to get as much done.  When she’s not pushing, let the calf back,” says Skinner.

If ranchers pull constantly, there is constant pressure on the calf, impairing blood circulation.  

“This is one reason some calves are unconscious and fail to start breathing when they are born,” Skinner says.

If a calf is tight in the birth canal – to the extent the rancher can feel its elbows pop as they enter the birth canal – and the rancher is constantly pulling the calf’s legs tight against his head, the legs put pressure on the jugular veins. 

“When I have a tight one like that, I’ll pull when the cow pushes, four or five times, and then I’ll push the calf back to let him get some circulation to its head,” Skinner suggests. “After giving the cow a little time to rest, with the calf pushed back inside a bit – just like she’d be doing out in the field when she gets up and walks around a little, I’ll pull on the calf again.”

When the calf’s head is out of the vulva to its eyebrows, ranchers can finish fulling the calf.  

“Then, when the calf gets out, it will usually breathe,” explains Skinner.

Breathing trouble

“What happens with most of the calves that don’t start breathing after they are born, even though they still have a heartbeat, is that we’ve impaired the circulation to their head too long,” he says. “One of the things that stimulates the calf to breathe is the dropping level of oxygen in the bloodstream, as when the umbilical cord breaks and he no longer has a constant supply of oxygen.”

As oxygen in the bloodstream drops, the brain is triggered, telling the calf to breath.

“But, if we’ve been pulling the calf with constant pressure, we’ve cut the circulation to the brain enough that this trigger isn’t happening, and he won’t breathe,” says Skinner.

If ranchers allow a calf some periodic relief from pressure as they pull, Skinner says they will rarely have a calf that won’t breathe when it is delivered.  

“This may take a little longer, but it’s safer,” Skinner adds. “We don’t tear the cow’s vagina or put the calf at risk. It does not have to breathe until the umbilical cord is squeezed off, and this won’t happen until he is nearly fully born – unless it’s coming backward.”


“If the calf’s heart is still beating, we know it’s still alive, and there’s hope to get it breathing, even if it is unconscious,” Skinner says. 

Ranchers should first clear the airways and then roll the calf onto its breastbone in an upright position with chin resting on the ground and nose as low as possible to allow fluid to drain from its nostrils.  

“If necessary, we should use our fingers to strip fluid from his mouth and nose in a suction-like action or use a suction bulb if we have one,” explains. “Rub and massage the calf to help stimulate lung action.”

If the calf doesn’t breath even after his nostrils are tickled, ranchers should blow air into his lungs. 

“Lay the calf on its side with head and neck extended,” explains Skinner. “Cover one nostril tightly with our hand, holding his mouth shut to prevent air escaping and gently blow a full breath into the other nostril, forcing air into the lungs.”

He cautions against blowing rapidly or forcefully to avoid rupturing a lung.  

Ranchers should blow until they see the chest rise and then let the air come back. A second breath should follow, and Skinner says ranchers should continue filling the lungs and letting them empty until the calf starts breathing on his own.  

“Usually, once the body tissues become less starved for oxygen, the calf will regain consciousness and start to breathe,” Skinner comments.

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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