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Improving calf survival after birth

Quick facts

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.

To improve calf survival after birth:

  • Follow practical calving protocols.
  • Train employees about calving supervision.
  • Intervene early during birth.
  • Use a calf vitality scoring system.

Presenting stillbirths is a major challenge on dairy farms.

Practical protocols and frequent employee training, well timed intervention, proper resuscitation techniques, prompt recognition of abnormal calf behavior and signs of distress, and well timed treatments can all contribute to reducing calf loss in the calving pen and soon thereafter.

Follow practical calving protocols

Practical calving protocols and regular employee training that clearly describe calving supervisions and when to intervene can help lower stillbirth rates.

The majority of cows will calve easily, unassisted and unattended, and they should be allowed to do so. However, about 40 percent of heifers and 20 percent of adult cows may experience difficulty and need assistance.

Spending too long of a time in the birth canal is problematic for calves because the pelvis of the cow can pinch off the umbilical cord, which is the only source of oxygen for the emerging calf.

Feed calves caffeine

There are several treatments to consider when faced with a newborn calf with poor vitality. One strategy is the use of caffeine.

Caffeine has been used in pre-term human infants with apnea for many years and is a very effective stimulant. Dr. Sheila McGuirk, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, suggests giving one bottle of an energy drink (such as 5-hour Energy) to calves orally, which provides between 100 to 200 mg of caffeine.

More research is required on this topic, but there are many anecdotal reports of dull calves responding to caffeine and becoming alert within 15 to 30 minutes.

It is important to work with your veterinarian if you are interested in pursuing this treatment to develop protocols that use appropriate withdrawal times, especially when considering treatment of bull calves.

Give calves pain medication

Calves also may be dull due to pain. Prolonged dystocia can exert large amounts of force on the calf resulting in considerable pain, which we often fail to recognize.

There are several studies that show that giving pain medication to calves can improve vigor, suckle response, and weight gain during the first week in calves born to dystocia.

It is important to work with your veterinarian if you are interested in pursuing this treatment to develop protocols that use appropriate withdrawal times, especially when considering treatment of bull calves.

Early intervention during birth

Early intervention can reduce stillbirth rates and improve calf vigor.

Once the head and shoulders are out and the calf is determined to be alive (blinking, suckle, tongue tone), fluids and membranes should be removed from the mouth and nose and the calf should be removed quickly but gently.

Backwards calves require special consideration. If they spend too long of a time stuck in the birth canal, their first breath may be of amniotic fluid.

Use a calf vitality scoring system

After the calf is breathing, in sternal recumbency, and dry, there are some tools we can use to further assess her vigor.

A calf vitality (VIGOR) scoring system, developed by researchers at the University of Guelph, is designed to assess calves within minutes of birth to identify at-risk newborns for further intervention. It evaluates visual appearance, general responsiveness, mucous membrane color, heart and respiratory rate and reflex responses.

Many of these signs of distress can be easily identified in the calving pen in the time immediately after birth.

  • Meconium (yellow or brown) staining of the hair coat.
  • Prolonged time to sternal recumbency. 
  • Slow blink after touching the eyeball. 
  • Weak or absent suckle reflex. 
  • Blue mucous membranes, hemorrhages or redness in the whites of the eye. 
  • Swollen tongue or head.

In a study conducted by colleagues at the University of Minnesota, 32 percent of calves evaluated within three hours of birth had a low VIGOR score. Risk factors for low vigor determined in the study were calves born to dystocia and calves with a higher birth weight.


Whitney Knauer, doctor of veterinary medicine

Reviewed in 2019

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