Both dairy and beef producers have their own views on the best way to stimulate a weak calf that doesn’t want to breathe. Based on my experience of what works, and what doesn’t, the procedures worth doing do not require a lot of expense but saving one extra calf these days converts into significant dollars down the line.
There are many reasons why calves come out slow and weak and recognizing these conditions might give you a heads up about what to do to save the calf.
Every time you must assist an oversized fetus with a hard pull, or any malpresentation occurs, you need to realize that time is running out and a weak, barely alive calf is a real possibility.
Cows that have been sick, losing weight or suffering some abnormality during pregnancy are other warnings that a calf in need of resuscitation may be on the way. Remember, a cow losing body condition in late pregnancy could be carrying twins so after any assisted calving it is a good idea to carefully examine the uterus for either tears or another calf. If you find another calf, assist in its delivery immediately.
There are several forms of resuscitation for calves.
One thing we know for sure hanging calves to get fluid out does no good and in fact makes it more difficult for the calf to breath by forcing the organs down on the chest. The fluid that does come out is generally draining out from the stomachs not the lungs. You are much better advised to get the calf sitting up in a frog-legged position so both lungs can get air equally, as happens in a standing calf. Extend the neck forward to open up the airways and then go to work.
Wipe away any large amounts of mucus around the mouth before you attempt any form of resuscitation.
There are some good calf resuscitators out there. Some simply bath the area in extra oxygen, which helps if the calf’s breathing is not strong. Some provide suction as well.
Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation pretty much does nothing as the air simply goes down the esophagus and inflates the stomach but doesn’t get into the lungs where it is needed.
If the calf is breathing slowly but has a strong heartbeat you should first try to stimulate breathing by either sticking a straw up the nostril or pouring cold water or snow in the ear — essentially to irritate the calf — and get it going.
If you don’t think that would be irritating enough try using a straw next time during a normal calving and see the quick response you get.
If there is still no response, the calf is in trouble and the only thing I have found that has worked is a respiratory stimulant. I used to use Dopram but it goes under different trade names and is harder to come by now. Your veterinarian can look for respiratory stimulants and hopefully find one but he or she may need to prescribe it as it may only be approved for other species. To be helpful the stimulant has to be close, in your calving kit and readily accessible when needed. Time is of the essence as a few seconds at this critical point can make the difference between life and death.
In general, the need to stimulate calves should be the exception in today’s cow-calf operations as calving problems have been greatly reduced by better management and better genetics. So unless it is a hard calving or there has been a delay in getting the calf out such as occurs with a full breech birth, resuscitation shouldn’t be a routine occurrence.
With hard calvings it sometimes pays to stop pulling and let the calf get a few breaths when the rib cage is out before you pull the hips through. The calf may bellow as it is alive and feels pain so be prepared for this response.
If you are getting too many weak calves your veterinarian will likely want to look at several potential trouble spots.
Is intervention too slow, especially in the case of heifers? Once the calving process has started, regardless of whether the water bag has broken, time is ticking. It is an old myth that you have lots of time if the water bag has not broken. That simply isn’t true.
Intervention when no progress has been made for one to one-and-a-half hours is still a good rule.
I have also seen cases where the calf needed to be resuscitated when the water bag failed to break and the calf was drowning in a cup of fetal fluids. This can happen in quick, easy births when there is not enough pressure to break the bag.
With breech births (backwards with both back legs ahead) and torsions we know time is often running out so it is imperative that you be ready to stimulate the calf as soon as it is out. Once the tail head of the calf comes through the pelvis in a backwards calving the navel is essentially broken and the calf tries to start breathing. This is where a fast pull will save calves, and also explains why we should always assist backward calves where possible.
Weak calves may also be the result of poor nutrition or vitamin and mineral deficiencies so we need cows that have good body condition scores and are on a sound mineral/vitamin program. These deficiencies happen as the calf is developing so reversing it during pregnancy is never a quick fix.
A selenium deficiency, for example, can lead to weak calf syndrome and iodine deficiencies lead to a goiter and weak or dead calves at birth.
If a calf is stillborn or weak and dies soon after birth a lot can be gained from a post-mortem to pin down a diagnosis to find ways of avoiding the problem in the future.
If the placenta is starting to come first, you may already be too late, but if there is any sign of life get the calf out as fast as possible.
One last word of advice on delivering a calf and pre-empting the need for resuscitation. Check the viability of the calf by putting fingers in its mouth to check its swallowing or gag reflex. If this is very weak you can be sure the calf will be sluggish when delivered. Also, if the calf is overly active and thrashing around this could be a sign time is running out as the calf is deprived of oxygen and needs to get out as soon as possible.
Roy Lewis is a Westock, Alta.-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.