Cattle may seem hardy, but newborn calves can be weak and delicate, and proper care in the first few hours of their lives will greatly improve survival rates and the overall health of newborns.
5 Essential Steps in Newborn Calf Care
Calving season can be hectic, with cows giving birth at all hours of the day and night, often in adverse conditions or inconvenient locations. These five key steps will help protect newborn calves, improving their chances of survival and helping them take strong steps into their new lives.
Calves are highly susceptible to chills and hypothermia, particularly right after birth when they are still wet and may be born in cold, wet, or windy conditions. A deep layer of bedding in the barn or calving box can help keep calves warm, or a windbreak can be provided for cows in labor. If necessary, a warming box can be used to help chilled calves recuperate.
A wet calf is a chilly calf, and keeping them dry is essential for keeping them warm. If the birthing cow is too exhausted or disinterested to lick the calf dry after it is born, it should be carefully wiped dry with clean rags. In bad weather, newborn calves should be taken indoors or under shelter so they are not drenched with rain or snow.
Newborn calves have very little resistance to infections and can be susceptible to bacteria and parasites. Bedding should be replaced as often as possible to keep it clean and dry, which will also help keep the calf warm. Only use clean rags or cloths to wipe the calf, and always sterilize or clean equipment before using it on the calf, such as for feedings or processing.
A newborn calf needs the colostrum – mother's milk – for essential antibodies, and a young calf best absorbs those antibodies if it nurses within the first 2-4 hours of its life. If a newborn calf is not nursing on its own or the cow is not allowing it to nurse, substitute colostrum from another cow or a dried source can be used as a supplement.
It is best to process and record calves when they are first born, before they become too feisty to handle easily. Tag the calves for identification and record any identifying marks it has, as well as noting its date of birth, weight and gender. Dip the navel in iodine to prevent infection, and consider castrating or tattooing the calf right away so these essential tasks are complete.
To be sure they are adjusting well and in the best of health, all newborn calves should be closely watched for several days. A healthy calf is perky and active, able to nurse on its own and shows no signs of infection, illness or injury. With proper care, every newborn calf can be a delightful addition to the herd.