A warmer than usual spring day is not an assurance that a newborn calf won’t become hypothermic. Some cattle breeds are better suited to colder climates while other that have Bos Indicus cross breeding with Brahman or other composites that are bred for hotter climates can be vulnerable to moderate temperatures as well as spring snowstorms.
Experienced cows usually don’t need assistance calving. They lick and dry their calves quickly and encourage them to stand. Their udders bag up well and they nudge and turn to direct their calves to their teats. First calf heifers on the other hand follow these instincts quickly, take longer, or may completely ignore their calf.
According to Colorado State University veterinarian Dr. Frank Garry the transition from the uterus to living outside of mom is a tremendous change for the animal especially for respiration and the heart.
“Birth is a complete radical shift from a temperature-controlled environment into the world; the calf must quickly adapt and create its own heat.”
Dr. Garry spoke to cattle producers in November at the Range Beef Cow Symposium on how to assist compromised and weak calves. More neonatal deaths occur from heifers because they don't have the experience he said. A calf safety checklist can help producers decide when to intervene. It includes signs of lethargy and delayed time to stand or suckle. If it takes over 15 minutes to stand the calf may die in cold weather. For calf survival, it is important to intervene, assist the calf, and take its temperature as part of a health assessment.
His information came in handy a few weeks ago when my friend’s bucking bull calf was born in the late afternoon on a moderate spring day. No one had seen the calf’s birth, but suspected it hasn’t gotten up or suckled. We waited a few hours, the sun had set, but the calf was still on all our minds. When approaching a pair, usually they will get up and move away, but if the calf can’t stand and move away it is a good sign that intervention is necessary. We pulled the calf from the corral into a heated workshop and mixed a bottle of colostrum powder with warm water, which we knew the calf needed immediately since it hadn’t gotten that important immunity building first milk from its dam.
The calf was shivering in convulsive waves even though the ambient air temperature was mild, and while we could get the bottle’s nipple in her mouth she just wouldn’t suckle. What we didn’t realize at first even though we’d had our fingers in her mouth to get the nipple in, was that her cold mouth was a sign that she was hypothermic. Besides rubbing her, we put her on a heating pad, and wrapped her in blankets. Her temperature was only a few degrees below normal, but she obviously would not have made it through the night with out help. After her body temperature was closer to normal, she was able to suckle and drink from the bottle. She stayed in the shop overnight surrounded by hay bales, and was fed a second bottle in the morning.
Not wanting to raise a bottle calf, which would require feeding every few hours, it was important to reintroduce the calf to her mom as quickly as possible. The dam was brought into a small pen and the calf had a commercial product applied topically to reduce rejection from unfamiliar smells. However the heifer ignored her calf. Next, she was put in a chute, milked out and then the calf was allowed to suckle. That was all it took. They stayed in the pen together away from the other cow-calf pairs for a few days until it was clear that they had re-bonded and the calf was feeding normally.
In hindsight, earlier intervention would have been easier on the calf, the dam, and us. The calf responded well after being taken inside and warmed up. However, if the weather had been much colder or if we had waited longer we might not have been so lucky.
A lethargic newborn calf brought inside won't suckle on the nipple. Her cold mouth was a sign she was hypothermic and needed more intervention. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
After warming with rubbing, blankets, and a heating pad, the calf drank a bottle of colostrum and was stronger and less lethargic. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
The next morning after reintroduction the heifer ignored her calf. She was put in a chute, milked out, and the calf was able to suckle. She accepted her calf and the pair was kept separate from the other cow-calf pairs for a few days. Photo courtesy of Lori Koschel.