To improve the chance of pulling a calf through an illness, it should be treated early. To do this, it means identifying the calves that are “at-risk,” watching them closely, and being ready to act.
Any calf that has gone through a dystocia should be considered an at-risk calf, even if it appears normal and healthy. Up to 15 per cent of heifers and five per cent of mature cows suffer from dystocia. The best preventive measure is, of course, to avoid it. The next best thing is to shorten the time the cow or heifer is struggling by assisting.
The longer a calf is stuck in the birth canal, the weaker it will be once it is born. A calf that has undergone a caesarean is also at-risk. These calves can look completely viable at birth, but deteriorate just hours later.
To give an at-risk calf the best chance, milk the cow as soon as you can (while she is still restrained). Once you have the colostrum, bottle feed or tube feed the calf. This ensures colostrum intake and helps prevent hypoglycemia and hypothermia, both due to insufficient calories.
This early action means you aren’t waiting until the calf visually deteriorates before it is spotted and finally treated. Waiting too long means calves need more care and stand a chance of suffering from a longer illness. Also, if you then want to collect colostrum, the cow will also have to be recaught for milking. It’s much better to do this early.
Calves that are born with difficulty can suffer from hypoxia (lack of oxygen), acidosis, and/or hypothermia.
If the calf is only slightly hypothermic (the body temperature is still above 96F or 35.5C, he is likely mildly depressed. In this case, heat lamps and hot water bottles are usually sufficient to warm him up. If the calf’s body temperature is colder, blood flow is poor and external warming is not effective. Warm oral and intravenous fluids combined with external heat are best.
Also, most calves in this state are acidotic and benefit from sodium bicarbonate. This medication improves the chance of survival. “Bicarb” can be given intravenously or orally, depending on if you have an intravenous line in place already or not.
Hypoglycemia isn’t much of a problem in the first few hours of life, but it does become a concern later when the