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Early calf survival: BCRC discusses key methods to ensure calves have a good start to life

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The first 24 hours of a calf’s life are the most critical, and ensuring calves have a good start to life can make them more productive and profitable at weaning and beyond. 

On Feb. 21, the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) hosted a webinar featuring a panel of experts who discussed key methods for calf health management and offered helpful tips to ensure calves have a solid foundation at birth.

The panelists consisted of University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine Associate Professor Dr. Claire Windeyer, Shoal Lake Veterinary Clinic’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Roger Richard and W.A. Ranches Cow Boss and Activity Coordinator Heidi Bennett.

Early calf survival

Producers should take time to evaluate replacement heifer health, nutrition and reproductive status, which will increase breeding success.

Richard explains multiple methods to ensure calves have a good start to life, including pre-breeding reproductive vaccinations, neonatal processing protocols and neonatal treatment protocols.

“There are three stages to the calving process. Stage one includes pre-labor, next is delivery of the calf, followed by the expulsion of the placenta,” he remarks.

Richard adds in stage two, the appearance of the water bag through the vulva signals the start of labor, and once a water bag appears, a calf should hit the ground within one hour for cows or up to one and a half hours for a first-calf heifer.

“If a producer notices a cow being restless and uncomfortable, the cow may have a uterine torsion. Depending on the extent of the torsion it may be able to correct with instruction from a veterinarian and a bit of practice, but this is something a person should not try to correct for the first time on their own,” he adds.

Anterior and posterior calf presentations may be delivered vaginally. 

“Anterior presentation is the head and two front feet with the spine of the calf resting against the underside of the cow’s spine,” Richard explains. “Posterior presentation is two rear feet and a tail with the spine of the calf resting against the underside of the cow’s spine.”

When assessing the calf’s presentation, producers should determine its orientation in relation to the cow’s spine and find three things belonging to the same calf – two front feet with its head in between or two rear feet with its tail in between. 

“If the presentation is normal, they may allow the cow to labor for 40 minutes to an hour, especially if the water bag is still present around the calf. But, if the water bag has broken, the calf should be delivered sooner,” he notes.

Richard further explains the proper way to pull a calf if intervention is needed, as early intervention can minimize the risk of losing the calf. 

Get them breathing

According to Windeyer, if a calf needs resuscitation when it is born, it is recommended to use the calf recovery position, straw in their nose, water in their ear or to rub vigorously.

“Avoid hanging calves upside down. Position the calf in the recovery position with both front legs tucked underneath their chest or out in front of them and back legs on each side of the body, pulled towards its head,” Windeyer states. “If you take those back legs and pull the feet up by the armpits or by the ears it will stabilize the calf.”

This allows the calf’s lungs to expand with the least amount of pressure, making it easier for the calf to breathe.

She continues, “We want them to start breathing, so be annoying. It will stimulate them. We want them to gasp, sneeze or cough.”

“Gently poke the nasal septum, this may cause the calf to take a deep breath and initiate the breathing process. Or, give them a wet willy, which can often cause them to gasp and start breathing,” she adds.

Get them up

Through a research study, BCRC pulled blood samples measuring biomarkers from calves born unassisted versus assisted and discovered the blood samples showed muscle damage linked to how much trauma the calf underwent.

“This research showed us calves that received assistance received more trauma than calves who were born with no assistance,” Windeyer explains.

Additional research has been done on providing a cow/calf pair with pain medication after a difficult calving.

“Providing calves with meloxicam had improved vigor, greater weight gain and milk intake, spent more time playing and were more active within the first 24 hours of life,” she continues. “We also provided calves with ketoprofen, and they showed signs of increased play and investigative behavior and spent less time laying on their side.”

Windeyer further notes cows were given the same medication in the research study, and under meloxicam, they spent more time at the feed bunk and more time being active, while ketoprofen intake produces lower incidence of retained placenta, less time laying on their side and spending more time resting comfortably.

Feeding time

Vaccination is another excellent colostrum management tool, mentions Richard. When a pregnant cow receives a scour guard vaccine, calves receive the antibodies through colostrum ingestion. 

By vaccinating cows and first-calf heifers in late gestation, producers can reduce the risk of newborn calf scours just after birth.

“At-risk calves, those that had assisted deliveries, weak suckle reflex, twins, orphans and those that have been mis-mothered will need colostrum intervention,” Windeyer states. “One to six hours is the most effective time to start colostrum intervention.”

She reiterates the dam’s colostrum is the best source, but if it is not available, producers can use colostrum from another dam in the herd or using a colostrum replacement product with at least 100 grams of immunoglobulin. Windeyer advises producers avoid dairy colostrum for beef cattle.

Melissa Anderson is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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