Calf Success: The First 24 Hours

cow and calf

Birth and the time immediately after is the most hazardous time in the life of a dairy calf. On average, between 5 and 7 percent of calves on U.S. dairy farms are either stillborn or die in the first 48 hours of life.  As care takers, we can provide best management practices the first 24 hours to help the calf succeed in life.

There are four key factors in the first 24 hours to help a calf succeed:

  • Calving Management:  About 40 percent of heifers and 20 percent of cows may have trouble giving birth.  Managers and herdspersons should be able to recognize the signs of labor and when needed, assist early in the calving process to improve calf survival after birth.  Calves who spend too much time in the birth canal can have problems such as lack of oxygen and reduced vitality.  To determine the vitality of a newborn calf, individuals should conduct University of Guelph’s “VIGOR” Score.  Like the Apgar Score for newborn human babies, farmers can determine a calf’s vitality by visual appearance (V), initiation of movement (I), general responsiveness (G), oxygenation (O), and respiration and heart rates (R), utilizing a 10-point scale for each criteria.
  • Colostrum Management:  Calves are born without an immune system.  It is with proper colostrum management (harvesting, feeding, storing, quality, etc.) we can provide a calf with an initial immune system until her own body begins to develop antibodies.  Four quarts of tested, high quality colostrum should be given to the calf within 0 to 3 hours after birth, and then again 12 hours later to help ensure the dam’s immunoglobulins are passed from the colostrum to the calf via passive transfer in the small intestine.  After 24 hours of life, the large openings in the small intestine are closed, no longer allowing the transfer of immunoglobulins from the small intestine into the blood stream.
  • Cleaning and sanitation:  With no immune system, cleanliness and sanitation is important so not to introduce pathogens into the calf.  All equipment (feeding and obstetrics) should be cleaned and sanitized prior to each use.  Know the type of pathogens on the farm helps determine the type of disinfectant to use.
  • Navel care: The navel/umbilical cord is a pathway for nutrients to pass from the dam to the unborn calf and elimination of waste from the unborn calf.  After birth, if not properly taken care of, it can serve as pathway for pathogens to enter the calf and cause disease.  It can cause increase illness and death, reduced growth weight, and umbilical hernias. Navel dipping at birth with a product that will destroy pathogens and dry the cord, a clean, dry environment, and fresh bedding can help reduce the incidence of navel infections.
For more information regarding calf management, please visit Extension Dairy Calf & Heifer Management.