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How to minimise losses at calving

Producers are still suffering losses at calving, many of which are avoidable.

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Resuscitation of a new-born calf follows the ABC rule:
  • Airway - establish airway, clear the nose and mouth
  • Breathing – normal calf will breathe within 30 seconds of birth; stimulate breathing if necessary using straw up the nose, vigorous rubbing of the chest, massage chest with forelimb, cold water treatment
  • Circulation – should follow once breathing is stable
Producers are still suffering losses at calving caused by calving problems and untimely interventions, many of which are avoidable.

This was the viewpoint of David Black, Paragon Vets, and Samuel Boon, AHDB breeding manager, who spoke at a series of calving courses organised by SAC Veterinary Services, AHDB Beef and Lamb, and Quality Meat Scotland.

The courses focused on best practice when calving cows, resuscitating new-born calves in order to increase survival rate and thriftiness, reducing the incidence of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and acidosis and improving welfare of the calving cow and calf.

The second stage of normal calving, which ends when the calf is born, should last between 30 minutes


Speaking at the course in North Moreton, Oxfordshire, Mr Black said: “Research suggests 90 per cent of calves which die around birth were alive when calving began, with the major causes being trauma and oxygen deprivation. Much of these losses are preventable if the right measures are taken when calving difficulties occur.

“If a calf has a difficult birth it is likely to have reduced early intake of colostrum, resulting in poorer absorption of the essential maternal antibodies and will be at greater risk of picking up disease. It may also have difficulty maintaining body temperature after birth. A dam which experiences a difficult calving is more likely to have fertility issues in the future.”

Mr Boon explained the use of EBVs could contribute to ease of calving. “Genetics can play an important role in the calving ease within your herd. It can influence birth weight, gestation length and calving ease of the calf and the mother,” he said.

“For example, by using birth weight EBVs, sires can be selected to produce smaller calves at birth, which will increase the ease with which it is calved.”

optimal calving

By using birth weight EBVs, sires can be selected to produce smaller calves at birth, which will increase ease with which it is calved

Mr Black said an optimal calving requires no assistance and the calf should be ‘standing within five minutes and suckling from its mother within 15 minutes of birth’.

Generally, intervention is required if:


  • The first stage of labour – where the cow will seek isolation, become restless, show signs of pain, and discharge – has lasted more than six hours.
  • The second water sac (which is bluey grey in colour) has been visible for one hour and the cow has not been trying.
  • The cow has been straining for over 30 minutes but making no progress.
  • The cow has stopped trying for a period of 15-20 minutes after a period of progress.
  • There are signs of excessive fatigue, the calf has a swollen tongue or severe bleeding is seen in the cow.

When trying to establish the cause of calving difficulties, Mr Black told the group to first check whether the birth canal feels normal, feel if the cervix is fully dilated, feel for the position the calf is in, check if the calf is dead or alive and gauge an estimation of the calf’s size.

“When thinking about intervening it is important to be patient. Paying attention to hygiene and using plenty of lubrication is essential.”

Mr Black recommended, after intervention, pain relief should be administered to the cow and she should be checked for another calf and for tears of the uterus. If the calf was moved from the birthing site it should be returned to minimise chance of rejection, as the birthing fluids are important in the mother accepting the calf, especially in heifers.

Webinar: To watch a webinar on normal calving and how and when to intervene, visit www.youtube.com/c/AHDBBeefandLamb


During a difficult calving a calf may suffer from hypoxia. This can result in a build-up of carbon dioxide and lactic acid in the blood resulting in acidosis. This can have a negative effect on respiratory and cardiac function, therefore threatening calf survival.
Acidosis will affect calf vigour and strength of the suck reflex and impairs absorption of antibodies in the calf’s intestines, increasing the risk of pneumonia and diarrhoea which can affect long-term survival of the calf. In order to treat acidosis the acidity of the blood needs to be corrected. This can be achieved by administering bicarbonate solution in the vein and should be carried out by a vet.
Signs of acidosis include:
  • Erratic kicking in the uterus
  • Irregular breathing
  • Delay in lifting the head up and sitting upright after birth
  • Lack of muscle tone
  • Lack of or slow foot withdrawal reflex if the calf’s foot is pinched between the cleats
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