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We've Gotta Live Calf! Now What?
Once you have struggled through getting that live calf on the ground, there are some things that can be done to encourage its survival.
Making certain the mother and calf have bonded well will ensure the calf gets good opportunities to nurse whenever it is hungry. It will help if a predator tries to take the calf, to have a cow that knows she has a calf to defend and keep close.
A newborn calf may be stressed at the time of birth if it is born too slowly, if it was a difficult pull, etc. Yellow discoloration is actually the calf's first feces passed in utero because it was severely stressed. Special care of the newborn to get it up and running can pay off in the long run.
Getting the calf dry and warm will help it to survive. Calves that get chilled or have a low food intake are prone to pneumonia and scours. A hotbox or area with a heat lamp can be invaluable, but even bringing that chilled calf up to the house until it is dry and given colostrum will suffice in a pinch. Sometimes kids can be a great asset when it comes to giving that extra bit of attention to a newborn. Bottle feeding the calf is fun and teaches responsibility at the same time.
If a calf is born alive, but is not breathing well on its own, setting it upright and rubbing its sides to stimulate it, and the good ol' piece of straw up the nose trick may be all it needs. There are respiratory stimulants (pharmaceutical products) your veterinarian may also recommend that you keep on hand for such emergencies. The practice of hanging the calf upside down and letting the amniotic fluid drain has fallen out of favor; because the pressure of the calf's abdominal organs on its diaphragm may actually hinder its ability to inhale. If the calf seems really full of fluid, hanging it upside down for just a few seconds should suffice.
Every newborn needs colostrum (Mom's first milk) as soon as possible. The colostrum is essentially the calf's only chance at survival, because it is the calf's immune system. A calf that does not get a proper amount of colostrum soon enough following birth, will not form a mature immune system until about 6 months of age. A farm/ranch environment is much too contaminated with everyday germs, viruses, and bacteria for a calf to live half a year with little to no immunity. A calf that does not get colostrum (or enough of it) tends to get ill over and over again, eventually succumbing to a virus or bacteria. If there is a question as to whether or not a calf has received enough colostrum, the veterinarian can do a simple blood test to give a rough estimate as to whether there has been a failure of passive transfer. Ideally the calf should get colostrum within the first 2 hours of being born. Colostrum ingested up to 6 hours after birth is still quite effective. By the time the calf is 12 hours old, its gut is beginning to shut itself down to the availability of absorbing colostral antibodies. Two meals of colostrum are recommended. Commercially packaged powdered colostrum is available in different concentrations (i.e. different amounts of antibodies/immunoglobulins) or one can simply make sure the calf gets sucking from its mom. Some people will milk a cow once she has calved and store some of that "first milk" or colostrum in the freezer rather than purchase commercial colostrum. Calves absorb the antibodies the best when they suck from their mother or a bottle, but for the sake of saving time, a bag feeder can be used. The cow's vaccinations will determine the kinds of antibodies and immunity her colostrum provides the calf. Your veterinarian can make recommendations as to what vaccines should be given and when.
An injection of Vitamin E/Selenium will help prevent White Muscle disease (a disease that causes weak muscles including the heart muscle of calves). Our area is known for being low in Selenium; therefore, it is a good idea to give the calf a shot of Vitamin E and Selenium at birth as well as supplementing the cows ahead of time with a mineral tub or injectable Vitamin E/Se. Vitamin E and Selenium can go out of date, making them ineffective. Always check that the supplement or mineral tub is not stale dated.
Keeping the environment where the calf is born and raised, dry and clean will decrease the chances of it getting scours, umbilical infections (naval ill), etc. The practice of dipping the naval with an iodine solution is no longer recommended, because it can cause the cow to overzealously lick at the calf's naval leading to trauma or even herniation. If a clean environment is not feasible, occasionally, an antibiotic may be recommended by the veterinarian to help treat naval ill. An infected naval can lead to septicemia (infection of the blood stream) which in turn can cause severe, permanent arthritis, meningitis, and other problems. Whenever possible a clean environment is a big key to success for the newborn calf.
Dehorning paste now will prevent unwanted horns later.
Calf castrations with bands are an option. If this is done now; however, it is a really good idea to put an implant in the calf's ear to replace the natural testosterone and encourage better growth rates. Also any calves castrated with a band require a vaccination against tetanus. This shot can be bought from your vet.
Tagging the calf now will help to identify the cow it belongs to, and helps to keep track of the calf. If calves are tagged, it is easier to identify if one has become ill or has gone missing.
Creep feed will help calves grow faster. It can also provide a way to mass medicate calves to prevent coccidiosis scours. Occasionally producers will put out diatomaceous earth for calves. It does not actually have an active ingredient to prevent scours; however, it gives the calves something clean to lick rather than the ground which often has manure contaminating it.
With cattle prices rising, keeping the newborn calf alive and thriving will certainly help with the bottom line. A good start for calves, will help them grow to their full potential.