Producers must ensure calves suckle quickly after birth

If it sucks, that’s a good thing — when it comes to newborn calves.

It’s so good, in fact, that newborns with a good suckle reflex are 41 times more likely to consume colostrum on their own compared to calves with a weak suckle reflex.

Dr. Craig Dorin of Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Airdrie, Alta., provided that statistic during a Jan. 15 webinar organized by the Beef Cattle Research Council.

Suckle reflex should be part of producers’ assessment of newborn calf vigour, said Dorin, and is easily done by sticking fingers in a calf’s mouth, massaging the roof of the mouth, and gauging reaction.

“You should always do a suckle reflex test on newborn calves and if they do not have a strong suckle reflex at 10 minutes of age, then you should intervene and … make sure that that calf is going to get colostrum,” said Dorin.

Calves able to nurse on their own shortly after birth tend to be more viable throughout their lives. Though calves that fail to do that can be bottle fed or tube fed, nursing is always best and other options are second rate, he said.

When nursing, the calf’s digestive system shunts milk into the fourth stomach, the abomasum, which absorbs the colostrum and its nutrients, said Dorin. During tube feeding, more liquid has to be provided so it overflows the rumen and the omasum to reach the abomasum.

He quoted research by his colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Homerosky, showing calves that have to be pulled become less viable as level of dystocia increases. Fewer than 40 percent of calves born after a hard pull will nurse on their own.

“What she saw was there was a strong correlation between calves that had a strong suckle reflex within 10 minutes of birth and calves that nursed on their own within four hours of birth,” said Dorin.

Hypothermia, acidosis, hypoxia and trauma from dystocia all adversely affect calf vigour. It is even more important to ensure calves suffering from any of those conditions receive enough colostrum as soon as possible.

“We all know that a calf that is born by getting enough colostrum (and gets) adequate immunity at birth, there is a lot of positive effects throughout that calf’s life, both from health and production parameters,” Dorin said.

He also warned producers not to hang newborn calves upside down or over a fence in efforts to clear airways after a difficult birth.

Fluid that typically flows out of a calf in that situation is coming from the stomach, not the lungs as once assumed, he said. Hanging calves upside down puts pressure on the diaphragm and makes it even more difficult for a calf to take its first few breaths.

“We were pretty much doing exactly the wrong thing with that procedure.”

Instead, calves should be positioned on their chests, which Dorin referred to as “sternal recumbency.”

If the calf does not appear to be breathing properly, producers can prick the calf’s nostrils with a straw to stimulate sneezing and breathing. They can also try vigorously rubbing the calf’s chest or pouring cold water on it to get a gasp reflex.

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