How to minimize the impact of dystocia on newborn calves

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According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), dystocia occurs in about 50% of calf births.  Calves that experience a difficult birth often have higher rates of acidosis, hypothermia and failure of passive transfer of immunity compared to those that have normal births.

Jason Lombard with NAHMS and Frank Garry at the Colorado State University Integrated Livestock Management Program have published recommendations for assisting dystocia calves.  They say some simple interventions can help newborn calves adjust to life outside the uterus, especially those experiencing dystocia.  The three goals of intervention should be to:

  • Stimulate respiration
  • Maintain body temperature; and
  • Increase blood volume via colostrum

Their suggestions for achieving these goals include:

  1. Remove mucus from the upper airway via suction or positive pressure ventilation;
  2. Position calves sitting upright on their sternum.  This is preferable to hanging calves upside down, which can cause other breathing and digestive problems.
  3. Stimulate respiration by poking the nostril with a piece of straw; vigorously rubbing calves’ bodies; administering positive pressure ventilation; and/or administering oxygen.  Positive pressure ventilation and oxygen administration can be achieved using an Ambu bag device.
  4. Dry calves immediately after birth and provide clean, deep straw bedding to prevent heat loss.
  5. In cold conditions, provide supplemental heat via a heater or hot water bottle; or immersing calves in hot water.  Calves may need supplemental heat for up to 24 hours.
  6. Once calves are breathing normally, administer high-quality colostrum at 100°F.  Colostrum helps warm calves; increase blood volume; improve circulation and resolve acidosis.

Lombard and Garry suggest that every dairy should have a dystocia monitoring program, and employ management practices that limit the occurrence and impact of dystocia.



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