Winter calving is well underway, and spring calving is just around the corner. This is the time I have always enjoyed. Seeing the new calves out with their mothers is a sight that cannot be duplicated!
I’d like to talk about those crucial first few hours of a calf’s life, especially during this time of year.
A good start to life is the most essential thing your new calf can have. Unfortunately, if the cow has had a difficult calving (dystocia) then the new calf is already behind the 8 ball, so to speak. Any delivery that takes longer and is stressful on the calf can have lasting effects well into its first few weeks of life.
There are a myriad of articles and books written on the subject of calf delivery, so I won’t get into details. Let’s just remember that once the cow actually begins to push, or calf membranes show, or a body part is sticking out, you only have a couple of hours to work with. Most calf fatalities I have dealt with during a difficult calving are due to the fact that it was too long before the cow got help. Either you need to help her, or you need to call the vet. If you do need to help her, then make sure you are equipped for it. Use a calf jack or no more than two people pulling, and use chains or rope. The use of some sort of motorized equipment (such as a tractor or skidsteer) is NOT RECOMMENDED!
All this to say if your calf had a difficult time being born, then it is greatly stressed, making it much more prone to disease – the bane of the young calf. However, even a calf with a normal delivery can be at risk.
Let’s say your newborn calf is alive, wriggling, and wet on the ground. Success! Lots of work was put into this; the payoff has begun. However, to get that payoff, the calf has to survive. Whether it is a beef calf or a dairy calf, the absolute most important thing that calf can get is colostrum, the first milk from the mother. It is chock full of antibodies and nutrients and getting enough into the calf is the key. All baby calves are basically born without an immune system, and that colostrum provides the start of immunity.
A beef calf can be allowed to nurse, but all dairy calves (and beef calves who won’t or can’t nurse) need to be bottle fed or tubed. (Talk to your vet if you have questions about why all dairy calves should be bottle fed or what ‘tubing’ is). A minimum of two quarts needs to be fed within the first 6-8 hours of life.
Getting that colostrum into the newborn calf will prevent many diseases – and be way more successful than trying to treat that sick calf later. Trying to fix a problem later with an injection of medicine or some sort of diarrhea treatment is never a good alternative for enough colostrum.
(If you cannot get colostrum, then there are colostrum substitutes out there. Just make sure you get a colostrum substitute, not a colostrum supplement! There is a difference.)
In the winter/spring months, ensuring that calf is dry and warm enough is the next stage. Several things to think about here – if it is a healthy beef calf and is up on its feet within an hour or two and nursing, then all you really need to do is to make sure it has some dry ground and a windbreak (unless it is really cold, of course) and it will be fine.
A less than healthy beef calf or a dairy calf need extra attention. Bringing it into a barn or shed or using a calf jacket is essential. I’ve seen to many “calfsicles” that are destined to die no matter how much work you put into them. If you will have a difficult time bringing that calf in, then use a calf carrier or sled.
Get colostrum into it, and keep that calf dry and warm, and you are off to a great start.