Neonatal Calf Care
Neonatal Calf Care
J. Todd Minor 0 1
Richard L. Riese 0 1
Iowa State University 0 1
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1 Minor , J. Todd and Riese, Richard L. (1984) "Neonatal Calf Care , " Iowa State University Veterinarian: Vol. 46 : Iss. 1 , Article 4. Available at: , USA
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Calf mortality is important economically in
dairy and beef herds. Calf losses substantially
reduce the returns from cattle raising. The eco
nomic losses are direct and indirect. Direct
losses are those derived from the loss of the
calf, planning and labor already invested by
the herdsman, and veterinary expenses from
obstetric and post-natal care. Indirect losses are
infertility, chronic disease, and impaired
development of the calf. .
The occurrence rate of calf mortahty de
pends on many factors: breed, farm manage
ment, farm climate and locale, age of the dam,
lactation number of the dam, the bull, the
duration of the pregnancy, and sex of the calf. 1
Calf mortality appears to be similar in beef and
dairy cattle. Perinatal deaths are very impor
tant. In some European countries this accounts
for 50-60 % of mortality in calves born to
heifers. Dystocia associated with large calves is
also a significant cause of perinatal death.
There is a close relationship between problem
births and perinatal mortality. 1 The increasing
use of large breeds, earlier calving, selection
for growth rate, size, and production, a?d
more intensive management systems has In
creased the incidence of dystocia and calf mor
The future of the cattle industry is based on
the birth of healthy calves. With the advent of
embryo transfer, the value of many of these
calves has greatly increased. The death of any
calf in the periparturient period is becoming a
loss of greater importance to the herdsman.
This paper presents some of the advice that can
be given and the steps that a veterinarian can
take to limit the losses of newborn calves.
Pre*Mr. Minor is a fourth-year student in the College of
Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University. .
**Dr. Riese is an assistant professor of Vetennary
Clinical Sciences at Iowa State University.
ltDl. 46, No. 1
parturient care of the dam, problems arising
from congenital malformations, and tec?
niques for relief of dystocia will not be dIs
A normal full-term fetus' survival depends in
large part on its dam's ability to deliver it
quick!y. The fetal factors exerting ~he gre~test
influence on parturition are sex, bIrth weIght,
and presentation. The fetus determin~s when it
is born. The dam's influences are chIefly feto
pelvic compatibility and parity. 2
Upon natural delivery of a healthy calf, the
following calf blood gas and acid-base parame
ters have been found: 3
peo2 = 58.15 mm Hg
p02 = 25.34 mm Hg
pH = 7.245
Base deficit = 3.86 mmole/L
Upon delivery of a healthy calf by caesari.an
section, the following calf blood gas and aCId
base parameters have been found: 4
pC02 = 60.7 mm Hg
pal = 19.0 mm Hg
pH = 7.242
Base deficit = 3.13 mmole/L
All calves immediately after birth have a
slight combined respiratory and metabolic aci
dosis. The metabolic part is compensated for
by the calves in one to two hours. The
respiratory portion lasts 24-48 hours. 3,4,5 •
This data on normal calves wIll contrast
sharply with the data from calves suffer~ng
from dystocia and calves delivered by caesarIan
section before physiologic parturition has be
gun. Delayed passage through the birth canal
with placental disruption and/or caruncle com
pression compromises oxygenation. The .o:cy
gen transport via uterus/placenta/~mbIhcal
vein/fetal pathway is disturbed causIng fetal
hypoxia to anoxia and acidosis. One sign that
this may have occurred is finding the neonate
stained with meconium. Hypoxic stress in
utero may result in the anal sphincter relaxing
and hyperperistalsis. Meconium voided into
the amniotic fluid stains the fetus. The neonate
can breathe with its nose past the labia of the
dam, but it can't expand its chest in the narrow
birth canal. The oxygenation compromise is
aggravated by continuous traction.
Calves subject to asphyxia in the uterus
have distinct combined respiratory and meta
bolic acidosis as compared to normal calves.
Their blood gas and acid-base parameters have
been found to be :4,6
pC02 = 72.7 mm Hg
p02 = 18.0 mm Hg
pH = 7.039
Base deficit = 10.6 mmole/L
The metabolic con1ponent lasts for six hours
before compensation by the calf is complete.
Corticosteroids playa role in this acidosis.
Cortisol and cortisone are at high levels at birth
due to increased fetal adrenal activity which
precedes and is part of the cascade of events
leading to parturition. 7,8 A negative linear rela
tionship exists in the neonate between pH and
plasma cortisol. 9 Added fetal stress of dystocia
will raise its cortisol level and consequently
playa role in worsening the acidosis.
Calves delivered by caesarian section before
physiologic parturition takes place suffer two
problems. Their acidosis is worse than that of
naturally delivered calves,5 and they suffer
worse respiratory distress from hypoxia and
from a low ratio of lecithin to sphingomyelin,
making a defective surfactant system in the
The type of delivery will often determine the
steps a veterinarian will take in his attempt to
keep a calf alive. The dystochic calf is fre~
quently in a life-compromising situation. Life
support techniques may make a difference for
many dystochic calves. Calves born by a natu
ral parturition are not to be ignored as good
husbandry techniques are vital to their contin
ued health and well-being.
Once the calf is on the ground a prompt,
quick evaluation of its viability must be made.
All calves are slightly acidotic when born. This
will cause some central depression which nets
arteriolar constriction and decreased
pulmonary circulation. How depressed is the
calf? How dyspneic? Is there muscle tone or
are the muscles flaccid? Are reflexes present
(fore and hind limbs, swallowing, corneal,
anal)? Is the pulse one hundred or better? Is
the calf alive (presence or absence of corneal
opacity)? An evaluation of these signs will tell if
therapy is needed and/or warranted.
The signs listed above will give an assess
ment of how well neonatal adaptation has pro
gressed. The neonate must quickly adapt itself
to its new extrauterine environment, overcome
the stress of parturition, and solve the hypoxic
crisis resulting from severance of the umbilical
cord. Respiration is the most urgent adapta
tion that must be made; all the other adapta
tions the neonate makes hinge upon it. Al
though it has been shown that there are
intrauterine ventilatory efforts, they are weak
because the stimuli to the central nervous sys
tem are buffered by the intrauterine environ
ment. The first breath marks the end of fetal
life and the beginning of the post-natal period.
The muscles of respiration must create a large
negative intrathoracic pressure to pull air into
the lung and move the fetal lung liquid through
the airways. The lung liquid is primarily re
moved by pulmonary capillaries and lym
phatics. Little fluid drains externally. The de
crease in pulmonary vascular resistance
decreases the pulmonary artery pressure. Cir
culatory pathways can then change by reversal
of blood flow through the ductus arteriosus, its
closure, the closure of the foramen ovale, and
the sealing of the umbilical arteries by clots.
Thermoregulation must begin or hypothermia
will result. Neonatal calves must rise and suck
le shortly after birth to establish a successful
neonatal-maternal bond and to obtain passive
immunity from colostrunl to change its agam
maglobulinemic state of birth.
In most cases the events of delivery and
adaptation proceed smoothly. A veterinarian
can relieve dystocia but is unable to correct an
adaptational cardiovascular irregularity. He
can intervene successfully with many respirato
ry inadequacies. The veterinarian can also .as
sist or advise the herdsman concerning avoid
ance and treatment of cold stress, on the
necessary feeding of colostrum, and other hus
With the birth of the calf complete, one
should express mucus from the nose and
mouth with the thumbs pressed on the bridge
of the nose and fingers in the intermandibular
space. The hands are then slid from eyes to
muzzle. 11 Stimulation of respiration can be ac
complished by applying some cold water to the
calfs head, rubbing the skin, tickling the nasal
mucosa with straw, or tapping the thorax dor
socaudal to the heartbeat on the phrenic nerve.
Administration of doxapram, pentylenetetra
zol, or nikethamide can also be performed.
All of the above merely increase central
nervous system stimulation and depend on the
calfs innate ability to generate sufficient nega
tive inspiratory pressure to inflate the lungs. A
weak, depressed calf will not respond to added
central nervous system stimulation.
If the calf is truly asphyxic, don't delay ven
tilatory support by using the above methods,
but move to one of the following techniques:
) artificial respiration - With the calf in
lateral reculYlbency, extend the neck, hold the
mouth open, grasp the uppermost hu
merus and costal arch, and lift. Little as
piration is noted at first as the lungs are
atelectatic. Continue to raise and lower the
humerus until breathing begins or another
technique is employed.
) intubation - This is the only way to insure
lung inflation in a depressed calf. The best
method of endotracheal intubation is the
use of a long-bladed laryngoscope to dis
place the tongue and epiglottis ventrally
and illuminate the laryngeal opening.
Blind intubation by externally palpating
the trachea and larynx with one hand and
manipulating the endotracheal tube with
the other requires more time but is possi
ble. Endotracheal tubes 6.0-10.5 mm in
ternal diameter will fit most calves. A 7
mm tube with a large inflatable cuff will fit
all but the very small calf.12 Be sure the
tube is in the trachea; placement of the
tube in the esophagus is easily done and
easily checked by tracheal palpation.
) ventilation by Hudson Demand Valvea
The goal of this support is to inflate the
calfs lungs in order that circulatory adapta
tions occur. This device will perform this
operation without the danger of high gas
pressure causing lung damage. It can de
liver oxygen via an endotracheal tube to a
maximum pressure of 39 mm Hg. The
valve works by either manually pressing a
button on the valve housing to supply gas
aHudson Demand Valve, Hudson Oxygen Therapy
Sales Company, Wadsworth, Ohio.
VOL. 46) No. 1
flow or by demand of the calf after sponta
neous ventilation begins. The apparatus is
small, consisting of the demand valve and
hose, an oxygen tank, a two-stage regula
tor, and an endotracheal tube. It would be
an asset not requiring much room in a
clinic or a vehicle.
) ventilation by ambu resuscitation bag
This device cannot deliver the pressure one
can get from compressed gases. Manual
ventilation with either room air or oxygen
can be achieved. These bags require little
space needing only an endotracheal tube or
face mask for operation.
) ventilation by Vetaspiratorb - This device
will provide both suction and positive pres
sure. The attempt at suction of fluid from
neonatal calf lungs is of little benefit. As
pointed out earlier, the majority of lung
fluid "vill be removed by lymphatics and
pulmonary capillaries. The primary goal
here is adequate lung inflation. The posi
tive pressure side of this equipment will ac
complish the lung inflation. The apparatus
is somewhat bigger than the demand valve.
It is also more complex to operate. An oxy
gen tank, two-stage regulator, hose, and
face mask or endotracheal tube are re
quired for operation.
) oxygen rich environment - This can be
provided by a cage, tent, nasal cannulas,
or face mask and an oxygen tank with reg
ulator. This technique will not expand the
lungs but will aid a struggling, breathing
Following the initiation of ventilation by the
calf, medications may be warranted. Calves
needing cardiovascular volume support will
benefit from intravenous administration of
Ringer's or 5 % dextrose in water. Acidotic
calves with base deficits greater than 10
mmole/L develop severe respiratory distress.
Morrow's suggested technique of administra
tion of sodium bicarbonate and glucose in
travenous solutions does alleviate the metabolic
acidosis but makes the respiratory effects
worse. 13 Treatment with sodium bicarbonate
and glucose solutions were no better than sa
line for survivability of acidotic calves. This
lack of success has been ascribed to possible
lung lesions before treatment (atelectasis, al
veolar emphysema, hyaline membranes, inter
stitial edema), brain hemorrhages, and/or
inbVetaspirator Oxygen Resuscitator, Veterinary Special,
ties, Inc., Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
tracellular acidosis. 14
Severe the cord 10 cnl from the body with a
sterile scissors. Don't dress the stump unless
there is a farm history of omphalitis, joint ill,
etc. If conditions merit treating the stump,
press out the jelly found within the cord and
paint it with copper sulfate, 20 % tincture of
iodine, 5% lysol, or an aerosol antibiotic. 15
The herdsman must be made aware of the
value of colostrum and its proper administra
tion. The worth of this practice cannot be
stressed enough. Colostrum provides an
energy source and important imn1unoglobu
lins. The capacity of the fetus to respond to
antigens is gradually developed to arrive at im
munocompetency at birth. The calf fetus can
respond to some antigens at 132 days and
others not until term. Neonates are susceptible
to disease because of the unprimed state of
their immune system, not due to incapacity.
The hazards associated with the failure of pas
sive transfer of immunoglobulins to the agam
maglobulinemic neonate are severe. A positive
relationship has been found between low blood
serum immunoglobulin levels and subsequent
mortality in calves. 16 Low levels of immuno
globulins are correlated with calf enteritis, om
phalitis, and hyperthermia. Given this rela
tionship with disease and mortality, proper
colostrum ingestion is important for all calves.
In one study, eighty percent of normal dairy
calves stood within ninety minutes and had
suckled within eight hours. Calves rarely suck
le from .a recumbent dam. 17 Force-feeding two
liters of colostrum ¥lithin one hour of birth is
one guideline presented. 18 Two liters per calf at
first feeding is a commonly suggested amount,
while the time of feeding has sometimes been
increased to within sixteen hours after birth. 19
This latter guide is questionable for two rea
sons: closure of the calfs intestine to immuno
globulin absorption (which will be discussed la
ter) and the decrease in quality of colostrum
which begins at nine hours after parturition.
Consequently, tube or bottle administration is
recommended as soon as possible after birth.
The age of the calf when fed colostrum and
the amount fed are very important in the ad
ministration of colostrum or a blood-derived
substitute. These two factors determine the
serum immunoglobulin concentration of the
post-colostral calf. With increasing age, there
are fewer intestinal epithelial cells responsible
for colostral immunoglobulin transfer. These
enterocytes are capable of pinocytotic activity,
colostral uptake, and transmission of colostral
constituents into circulation. As these cells pro
gressively decrease in number, there is a con
comitant decrease in absorption rate in both
the initial period after feeding and in succeed
ing periods. 20 All of the three activities: pinocy
tosis, uptake, and/or transmission to circula
tion are affected. This process, termed
"closure:' begins at twelve hours. Mean closure
finish time is twenty-four hours. 21 Passive im
munoglobulin transfer occurs in six to twenty
four hours after feeding. 22 There is no immu
noglobulin absorption from the gut after
forty-eight hours. Production of the calfs own
immunoglobulin begins at a very low level at
seventy-two hours. 23 Two liters of colostrum is
optimum to feed the average Holstein calf from
birth to sixteen hours. After that time, less
should be fed to avoid immunoglobulin A and
immunoglobulin M absorption inhibition due
to excessive amounts. 19
Earlier absorption rates and maximum ab
sorption of colostral immunoglobulin were
greater in calves that suckled their dams than
in those bottle-fed. Some labile factor is trans
ferred to the calf in the dam's colostrum acting
as a messenger to stimulate a burst of pinocy
totic activity.24 Artifically feeding calves colos
trum in the presence of their dam increased
blood serum immunoglobulin levels. 16 Despite
this, bottle feeding may be preferable because
it allows confidence in the amount of colostrum
ingested and when it occurs.
Calves with acidosis (pH < 7.15) have been
shown to ingest less colostrum and have subse
quent lower in1munoglobulin levels. Normal
calves fed the same amount as was ingested by
the acidotic calves (smaller than normal) had
higher immunoglobulin levels. 25 The effect of
corticosteroids on dam production and calf ab
sorption of colostral immunoglobulins is
clouded. It has been shown that induction of
parturition by corticosteroids decreases immu
noglobulin G transfer to colostrum26 and de
creases the efficiency of immunoglobulin ab
sorption by calves born to such cows. 27
Corticosteroids, natural or introduced, in nor
mally delivered calves have been shown to
cause no reduction in immunoglobulin absorp
Cold stress has been shown to delay onset
and significantly decrease the rate of absorp
tion of colostral immunoglobulins. Cold stress
also affects calves adversely' by causing loss of
body heat by conduction and evaporation
when their skin and haircoat are wet, in addi
tion to the normal loss by radiation and con
vection. Calves are born wet with amniotic
fluid and are extremely susceptible to chilling.
Normal thermoregulation causes shivering and
the catabolism of brown fat stores. In severe
weather and/or housing conditions, calves' nat
ural systems can't overcome cold stress. Ther
moregulatory mechanisms of calves will re
turn, so a heat lamp and/or a warm room is
justifiable to augment their thermoregulatory
systems. 29 If the dam doesn't lick her neonatal
calf dry, sprinkling bran on the calf will help
coax her along. Calves to be removed from
their dams at birth should be rubbed vigor
ously with straw or sacking. The dam licking
the anal region of the calf is stimulation for
passage of meconium, the debris accumulated
during fetal life. Colostrum feeding prolongs
the time of defecation of meconium. Contrary
to the idea of colostrum being a purgative, the
more colostrum fed, the longer before meco
nium passage. 15
To define good quality colostrum, a number
of variables must be considered. Advice from
the veterinarian concerning what colostrum to
freeze for future use is of benefit to the stock
man. Colostrum is better from a cow without
any or only a little prepartum colostral loss. A
cow that delivers prematurely has inferior
quality colostrum. The herdsman who wants to
freeze colostrum should pick cows that are
older, have been on his farm a long time, have
no mastitis, that calve in the fall, have greater
parity, and delivered normally, rather than
caesarian. 30 The teats should be washed before
the calf suckles or the colostrum milked out to
remove E. coli and Salmonella spp. that arrived
there with feces or vaginal discharge. 1 Colos
trum may be frozen for some time. Reports
vary on successful storage times ranging from
nine months to fifteen years. Freezing single
dose aliquots is suggested for ease of adminis
tration. Thawing should be neither fast nor ac
complished in a microwave. A natural thaw of
the container placed out on a counter is best.
The colostrum can be given while between
room and body temperature. Colostrum at
room temperature does not decrease intake nor
blood serum immunoglobulin levels when
compared to body temperature
administravol. 46) No. 1
For a situation where no colostrum is avail
able for calves, several substitutes can be used.
They can be given bovine plasma, serum, or
whole blood. The dam has approximately 2 g/
dl gammaglobulins and the desired level for the
calf is the same. Blood volume is eight percent
of body weight. If packed cell volume is thirty
percent, then the blood is seventy percent
fluids or serum. Give the calf one serum vol
ume of serum or plasma intravenously rapidly
through a fourteen gauge needle. Whole blood
should be given over several hours. 31 Oral ad
ministration of plasma or serum can also be of
benefit if the calf can still absorb the immuno
globulins from his intestine. An oral colostrum
substitute given three times per day consists of:
a whipped egg in 300 ml of water,
112 teaspoon of castor oil, and
600 rni of whole milk.
Egg white is antibacterial for some E. coli. 15
This is not intended to replace colostrum but is
a mixture to use when nothing else is available.
There are no immunoglobulins in it.
Neonatal calf care is economically important
and becoming more so. The veterinarian can
assist in reducing calf mortality, particularly in
respiratory support in asphyxic calves. Advice
on herdsman husbandry will also aid in keep
ing calf mortality and morbidity low. The im
portance of colostrum, its proper dosage and
administration, and the use of substitutes or
frozen colostrum are ideas to stress to the cattle
raiser. Keeping calves dry will reduce the weak
calf syndrome induced by cold stress. Breeding
programs to reduce the occurrence of dystocia
will reduce the incidence of asphyxic, acidotic
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