Helping the newborn calf breathe

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Despite our best efforts at bull selection and heifer development, cows or heifers occasionally need assistance at calving time.  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.  The excess of carbon dioxide results in a build-up of lactic acid (therefore the acidosis.)  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, a few ideas may help.  First, manually clear the mouth and nasal passages of fluids and mucus.  Hanging the calf over a fence is NOT the best method to accomplish this task.  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.

A better method is to briskly tickle the inside of the nostrils of the calf with a straw.  This will usually cause the calf to have a reflex action such as a “snort” or cough.  The reflex cough or “snort” expands the lungs and allows air to enter.  Expect the calf to pant rapidly for a few minutes after breathing is initiated.  Panting is the natural response that increases oxygen intake and carbon dioxide release and will allow the calf to reach normal blood gas concentrations.



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