The immediate survival of a calf experiencing a difficult birth is critical, but the effects of dystocia can put the calf at a higher risk of death or illness in the first four months of life.

Calves experiencing a prolonged dystocia are likely to have low levels of oxygen in their blood (hypoxia), and their blood pH is frequently acidic (acidosis) instead of neutral. These impairments lead to a cascade of events, such as decreased ability to nurse, decreased absorption of immunoglobulin, and poor temperature regulation. Calves experiencing dystocia are also at a higher risk of being stillborn. Stillborn is usually defined as death at or within 24 to 48 hours of delivery.

Here is a look at how to care for dystocia calves.

Provide oxygen

Because dystocia calves suffer a greater-than-normal degree of birth asphyxia, they will be weak and less responsive than normal calves. Typically, the calf will not breathe as well as a normal calf, so it will not take in as much oxygen nor eliminate as much carbon dioxide. “This means the calf will have less ability to correct these physiological derangements,” says Frank Garry, professor of veterinary medicine at Colorado State University. “In turn, the calf will not rise as quickly and will not use as much muscle activity and will not generate as much body heat.” The quickest and easiest thing to do is to provide oxygen through a tube to the nasal passage.

A common error with dystocia calves is that the farm does not have oxygen on hand to provide supplemental oxygen to the newborn calf when needed. “Another common error is to hold a calf upside down for more than just a few seconds,” explains Sam Leadley, calf-care specialist with Attica (N.Y.) Veterinary Associates. “The mistaken thought is that this position will help drain fluids out of the mouth and nasal passages. It might do that in the first few seconds, but after that time there is a good chance the liquid is coming out of the esophagus, thus the fluids can be aspirated and calf health compromised.”

As soon as the calf’s chest is out of the dam, it is not too soon to start oxygen supplementation, says Leadley. Oxygen supplementation may be continued after the calf is on the ground, too. The oxygen flow rate should be about 5 to 10 liters per minute, as measured by the flow meter on the oxygen tank or a gentle breeze on your face. Measure the tube from the tip of the nose to the corner of the eye. Do not insert the tube past this measured point. The nasal tube not only provides oxygen, but it also may irritate the calf enough to cause a sneeze response, which will help clear any fluid from the upper airways, says Leadley.

Stimulate the calf

Stimulation is vital to the calf’s survival. Use a clean bath towel to rub the calf “fluff dry.” “Concentrate efforts especially around the neck and shoulders,” recommends Leadley. “Those areas best stimulate strong breathing responses.”

The calf should be dried so that it does not lose as much body heat from a wet hair coat. Even in very modest temperature environments, the calf will lose heat because it has a wet hair coat. The act of drying will help stimulate the calf so that it becomes more active. Additional heat can be provided by heating lamp, and administer warmed colostrum to assist in warming the calf, says Jason Lombard, National Animal Health Monitoring System dairy specialist and veterinary epidemiologist in Fort Collins, Colo.

Track temperature

Measure rectal temperature at half-hour intervals until the calf is active, alert, strong and suckling well, Garry suggests.

The body temperature should be one to two degrees above the dam’s rectal temperature immediately after birth. It will then drop to about 102 degrees F within 15 to 30 minutes and should maintain that temperature. “A typical sign of poor adaptation is a falling body temperature,” says Leadley. “Calves that are very cold may not shiver.”

Watch for acidosis

Respiratory acidosis will be resolved by improved breathing function. In severe cases, the calf’s ventilation can be assisted through a tracheal tube, but this is not practical in most farm settings. Making the calf move and sit in sternal recumbency will promote better breathing.

Metabolic acidosis will usually resolve if there is good circulating blood volume. Usually, this is provided by promptly giving colostrum to the calf, which increases blood volume as fluid is absorbed from the colostrum. In more severe cases, IV fluids can be administered. Only the most severe cases need additional bicarbonate.

Feed extra colostrum

It is recommended that dystocia calves are given colostrum for both the first and the second day of life, amounting to 4 quarts in the first day and 4 quarts the second day, notes Garry.

All dystocia calves should be treated and monitored more closely to see that they are dried promptly, kept warm, stimulated to move, provided supplemental oxygen, and promptly given colostrum. “The required treatments are basically supportive care, and will do no harm in the case where the calf does not need them,” says Garry.

Bovine Veterinarian is a sister publication of Dairy Herd Management.

Be proactive

Don’t make the assumption that a calf is normal until it proves otherwise.

This is the most common mistake in handling a dystocia calf, says Frank Garry, professor of veterinary medicine at Colorado State University.“This wait-and-see attitude usually means the calf got off to a poor start and continued to do poorly until a problem was observed. Many calves after dystocia still look pretty normal for the first 15 minutes to half an hour while they have high circulating catecholamine levels. Then they get quiet, depressed and weak rather than looking stronger and standing and moving around.”

The best approach is to assume a dystocia calf needs help, even in the absence of specific measurements. If calves are being assisted and cared for right after birth, most of the residual problems will be greatly diminished. “Anything you are going to do to improve the performance of dystocia calves needs to be done within the first minutes to hours after delivery. Just like administering colostrum, care of the newborn calf needs to be done right after delivery; otherwise, it is too late,” says Garry.

Mild vs. Severe dystocia

Although it makes sense that a mild dystocia calf will be mildly affected and a severe dystocia calf will be severely affected, in reality the correlation is not that close, explains Frank Garry, professor of veterinary medicine at Colorado State University. “Some calves with mild dystocia will have very significant problems. Many calves that suffer severe dystocia will actually survive quite well. This explains, in part, why many producers are not as proactive as they should be in treating dystocia calves. When they have seen calves affected by severe dystocia perform reasonably well, it removes some of the urgency of the need to do something special.”

Records should be kept of all deliveries so that calf performance can be later analyzed to see if dystocia calves are performing adequately. On average, dystocia calves will have higher levels of sickness and death, which should prompt closer attention to the calf immediately after delivery.

A tip to keep track of calves that had a hard time coming into the world is to clip an old cow tag to the top front of their hutches to flag the calf for special attention. “In addition to being badly stressed, a fair proportion of these calves can have broken ribs,” says Sam Leadley, calf-care specialist with Attica (N.Y.) Veterinary Association. “Some TLC is called for when handling the calves, even when getting them into their hutches.”

Leadley tries to be more lenient with leaving dystocia calves on a bottle longer than other calves. “At risk of over-treating calves, I probably start treatment for pneumonia symptoms for these calves a little sooner than for ‘un-assisted delivery’ calves as well.”