Animal genetics and cow-calf operators’ best efforts at bull selection and heifer development aside, the birthing process still results in some newborn livestock needing assistance at calving time.

Glenn Selk, emeritus animal scientist and editor of Oklahoma State University’s Cow-Calf Corner newsletter, reminds cattle producers every baby calf has a certain degree of respiratory acidosis.

“Acidosis is the result of the deprivation of oxygen and the accumulation of carbon dioxide that results from the passage of the calf through the birth canal,” he said. “The excess of carbon dioxide results in a build-up of lactic acid.”

In order to correct the lack of oxygen and the excess of carbon dioxide and its by-products, the healthy calf will pant vigorously shortly after birth. Some calves, however, may be sluggish and slow to begin this corrective process. It is imperative that the newborn calf begins to breathe as soon as possible.

“To stimulate the initiation of the respiratory process, first manually clear the mouth and nasal passages of fluids and mucus,” Selk said.

Traditionally, compromised calves were held up by their hind legs to allow fluid to drain from the airways. Many veterinarians and animal scientists no longer recommend this technique.

“Most of the fluid that drains from an upside-down calf is stomach fluid, important to the newborn’s health,” Selk said. “Holding the calf by its hind legs also puts pressure on the diaphragm from abdominal organs, interfering with normal breathing. It's better to use a suction bulb to clear the airways.”

Hanging the calf over a fence also is not recommended. The weight of the calf on the fence restricts the movement of the diaphragm muscle. The fence impairs the diaphragm’s ability to contract and move. This diaphragm activity is necessary to expand the lungs to draw in air and needed oxygen.

Selk said a better method is to briskly tickle the inside of the nostrils of the calf with a straw.

“This typically will cause the calf to have a reflex action such as a snort or cough,” he said. “The reflex snort or cough expands the lungs and allows air to enter. Expect the calf to pant rapidly for a few minutes after breathing is initiated.”

Panting is a natural response that increases oxygen intake and carbon dioxide release and will allow the calf to reach normal blood gas concentrations.

Additional information on newborn calf care is available through all OSU Cooperative Extension county offices, usually listed under ‘County Government’ in local directories.

“County Extension agricultural educators are one of the best resources available to a producer, providing firsthand access to the latest science-proven knowledge and best management practices relative to agricultural enterprises,” Selk said.