July 8 2014 06:43 AM

A dairy cow's long, productive life starts with the care she receives from the minute she is born.

In an ideal world, every calving would happen unassisted and result in a perfectly healthy, active calf. However, as all dairy producers know, that sometimes is not the case.

"We can have a critical impact in the first 24 hours," said Sheila McGuirk with the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. She addressed the crowd at the Four-State Dairy Nutrition and Management Conference in Dubuque, Iowa.

Most calves that die within the first 24 hours of life are alive at birth, she said, and simple strategies may prevent death. "Preference is given to unassisted, quiet vaginal births," McGuirk explained. Some deliveries will require aid, of course, but, "Assistance during calving is not the best thing for the calf when it is not needed," noted McGuirk.

After delivery, caretakers should watch for these signs of normal adaption to life outside the uterus:
  • Head righting begins within minutes.
  • The calf is sitting in a sternal position within 2 minutes
  • The calf makes a standing attempt within 15 minutes
  • Shivering begins within 30 minutes of delivery
  • The calf is standing by 1 hour
  • The calf is suckling within 2 hours of delivery
With any calving assistance, normal newborn behavior is delayed, McGuirk said. If the signs above don't happen in a reasonable amount of time, these simple techniques may revive the calf and stimulate regular breathing:
  • Place the calf's head over the edge of a raised platform for 10 to 15 seconds to drain fluid from the nose and mouth.
  • Place the calf in a sitting position and rub along the topline from the tail head to the poll with a clean, dry towel.
  • Use the towel to stimulate the ears, eyelids and nose.
  • Pour ice water onto the head or into the ears to stimulate breathing
  • Compress and shake the trachea high up in the neck to stimulate a cough reflex.
Knowing these resuscitation skills could have a substantial impact on calf survival on farms, according to McGuirk. Her advice to fellow veterinarians was, "Train dairies on these simple skills. Empower dairies so that they understand that resuscitation makes a big difference."

Abby blog footerThe author is an associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master's degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's from University of Wisconsin-Madison.