Finding a newborn calf too weak to stand or in distress is all too common. Without intervention, calves in this condition will likely die.
It doesn’t have to end that way according to Dr. Melissa Wallace of Livestock Veterinary Services, Picture Butte, Alta. Vulnerable calves can receive their first colostrum by tubing, essentially jump-starting health and vigour.
When to intervene
Wallace says calves become overly weak for numerous reasons.
“Often, we’ll see this kind of situation after dystocia or a difficult calving event. Those are the ones to really keep an eye on, watching if they get up and drink. Other reasons could be injury or poor teat quality of the mother. Low udders or fat teats not fitting in a calf’s mouth can be a problem. Or, if the birth wasn’t witnessed and it appears sunken-eyed and dehydrated, we should consider tubing.”
She explains timing is critical. Monitor newborns for the first six hours and if concerned, intervene.
“The golden window is before 12 hours of age,” said Wallace. “By then the intestinal closure is usually completed and we get a drastic reduction in the amount of immunoglobulins absorbed from inside the stomach.”
Wallace says a few equipment options are available. The older styles include the single unit plastic bag, tube and ball, or a hard bottle with a stainless-steel tube and ball. She likes a recent model called the “Trusty Tuber,” featuring an interchangeable nipple or tube and insertion ball.
“The handle makes it easy to hold while letting the milk drain, plus since it’s interchangeable, bottle feeding also works well.”
Colostrum must be fed at the right temperature. If cold liquid is ingested, the body expends extra energy to warm it during the digestive process. Ideally, the mother would be milked, and her warm colostrum fed through the tube, but sometimes this isn’t possible.
Wallace adds it’s a good idea to have frozen colostrum on hand, but it’s critical to prepare it correctly. “We want colostrum around body temperature at 38 or 39 C. Never microwave it or use scalding hot water, as this will cook the proteins and antibodies. Put it in a warm water bath and thaw it slowly, inverting it several times to keep it mixing and thawing.”
Positioning and Technique
Positioning the calf to receive the tube is critical. “Never tube them when flat on their side. The concern is they won’t swallow properly, and chances are increased of getting it down the trachea or windpipe.”
If possible, stand the calf while backed into a corner to prevent struggling. If too weak, place them in sternal recumbency, sitting squarely on their chest. Lift the nose slightly and put a finger in the mouth to trigger the suckle reflex.
“We want to make sure the nose is below the level of the ears. If we push it up too high, it’s very difficult to swallow.”
She recommends first dipping the ball into the milk for lubrication. Then slide it down the left-hand side. When it reaches the back of the mouth, the calf will swallow, and it can be slowly advanced into the throat.
“The tip of the ball should be between the point of the shoulder and the point of the elbow. To help get this right, before insertion, the tube can be held alongside the mouth and neck to show how far to insert.”
When introduced, she says two tubes should be noticeable in the neck. One is the trachea, and the other the rigid tube in the throat. If it can’t be felt moving, or only one is evident, it’s likely in the wrong hole and should be slowly backed out.
“Once it’s confirmed in the right place, unlock the clamp and let the milk flow by gravity, not squeezing or pressuring the bag. Once the tube and bag have completely emptied, kink or clamp it and gently but swiftly pull it from the mouth.”
The procedure must be completed correctly or there may be dramatic effects, including death.
“If it’s in the trachea or windpipe, the lungs fill with milk and the calf will drown. We might also feed them aspiration pneumonia — caused by breathing in or inhaling some milk,” Wallace says.
The milk shouldn’t be released until the tube is swallowed, then kinked or clamped fully before removal to prevent the calf from inhaling fluid.
Five steps to proper cleaning
Cleanliness is also vital. Equipment roughened by contact with teeth can scratch and injure the calf. Plus these defects will harbour bacteria. Damaged tubes and balls should be replaced.
Wallace outlines five cleaning steps using chemicals readily available from a dairy or farm supply store:
1. Rinse with cool water. Excessively hot water will bake milk proteins on the surface of the tube, causing bacteria to feed off them and creating a biofilm of dirt and debris.
2. Soak the bag and tube for at least five minutes in a hot water/one per cent chlorine detergent mixture. Scrub well using a long-bristled brush to clean inside the tube.
3. Rinse in a cold water and acid solution for two minutes.
4. Hang it and let it dry completely.
5. Within two hours of successive uses, disinfect with a chlorine dioxide mixture.
She says while stomach-tubing weak calves can be a life-saving procedure, it’s best used minimally as the risk of acidosis in the stomach is increased during each use. Bacterial infections in the gut are also more probable with repeated cases. If health doesn’t improve, consult a veterinarian.