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Tips to Improve the Health and Vigor of Newborn Calves

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We know that disease causing agents are present in beef cattle herds, even if the most careful biosecurity procedures are observed. In general, basic management of calves and calving groups will play a greater role in whether or not calves get sick than the presence or absence of most disease causing pathogens.

In a webinar hosted by the BCRC last winter, Dr. Claire Windeyer, veterinarian, professor and researcher at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, discussed management during the calving season for healthier and more productive calves. During the webinar, she provided numerous tips on how to manage both cows and calves to reduce disease incidences and increase calf survival rate.

Here are three highlights from that webinar, followed by the full recording:

Use the calf recovery position to resuscitate calves

A recent study showed that over half of beef producers surveyed hung calves upside down to resuscitate them, a method that is not recommended. Hanging upside down causes a calf’s stomach and intestines to press down on the diaphragm and compress the lungs, making it harder for the calf to breathe. Although fluid will come out, it is fluid from the stomach, not the lungs.

In the “calf recovery position”, calves are placed with both legs tucked underneath which allows the lungs to expand with the least amount of pressure. Other techniques like poking straw in the nose, rubbing the calf vigorously, or dripping water into the ear are also effective. Watch the webinar (27:20-31:21)  to learn more about these techniques.

Separate calves from pregnant cows

Pasture management during calving can be instrumental in reducing disease in calves. Cows often shed pathogens that are not harmful to them but can cause disease in calves with young, naive immune systems. A solution to this is to avoid calving on the same pastures that cows are overwintered on, and to move pairs into a nursing pasture shortly after birth (within the first 24 hours). It is also beneficial to fill the nursery pasture with calves as close in age possible, and then start a new pen with other similar aged calves, rather than rotate calves through pastures. This will help to reduce the pathogen exposure from older calves to younger ones. Another technique, called the “sandhills system”, moves pregnant cows every couple of weeks, leaving the pairs behind. (22:20-24:23)

Ask your veterinarian about using a long-acting NSAID on calves after difficult births

A study in dairy cows has shown that calves that were given a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) after a difficult birth were more vigorous, had an improved suckle reflex, and were healthier than calves that didn’t receive a NSAID. More research is needed to study the effects on beef calves, but some beef producers have reported similar results. (44:13– 47:14)

Like all past BCRC webinars, you can watch the full recording of this webinar at any time.

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