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Vet's View: Top tips for reducing stress at calving

As a busy time approaches for many dairy and beef spring calving herds, stress levels of the cow and farmer will be increasing. Louise Hartley speaks to vet Kathryn Hart for her top tips.

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Cows enter their most fragile state during calving, coming under huge physical and metabolic stress.


Understanding these stresses and taking steps to reduce them is fundamentally important, says Kathryn Hart of George Farm Vets, Wiltshire.


After calving, always check for soft tissue tears in the vagina, especially if the birth has needed assistance, as this will alter treatment. If deeper tissues have been torn or there is excessive blood loss, call for your vet, says Ms Hart.


“If the cow had a prolonged or difficult calving, pain relief should be administered in the form of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory.


Antibiotics should be considered if arms have been inside the cow for any length of time.”


Not many people realise it is not the cow, but the calf which initiates labour, using a complex system of hormones and steroids.


The transition from the safe uterine environment into the harsh, cold outside world is difficult for a calf and it is in those first few minutes of life when some major physiological changes occur.


Ms Hart says: “The greatest change the calf must cope with is the switch from receiving oxygen through its navel to using their own lungs.


“Traditionally, calves were hung over gates to drain excess fluid from their lungs, however most of the fluid which drains out is actually from the guts and has little impact on the lungs.


“I would advise placing the calf in the ‘sitting frog’ position, which limits weight on the lungs and enables both sides to inflate evenly.


Stimulating the nose can encourage sneezing, which helps clear the larger airways.




“Rubbing the ribs with clean straw can help two-fold - cleaning the mucus from the calf as well as stimulating the lungs and heart.


However, this should not be done too vigorously as it can lead to broken ribs, which can cause severe lung damage.


“Ensuring the cow is up and trying to lick the calf will be most help of all.”


The calf’s instinct to take its first breath is not driven by the lack of oxygen but rather the increasing levels of carbon dioxide produced by its muscles, explains Ms Hart.


“Calves which experience a difficult delivery often take longer to start breathing and are therefore left with very high levels of carbon dioxide in their blood. This alters the pH of the calf’s blood, making it more acidotic,” she says.


“Acidotic calves are mentally slow and often unwilling or unable to suck - something which is easily corrected by intravenous administration of bicarbonate, commonly done by the vet.


“Calves with acidosis are also less likely to absorb the immunity antibodies in colostrum, so repeated feeds will be needed.”


Although this is a stressful time of year for many, preparation is vital, says Ms Hart.


Ensure the calving aid is easily accessible, the ropes are clean and the vet’s on-call number is, of course, saved in your phone.

Water at calving – it is all about timing

Some farmers swear by giving water to newly-calved cows, but others say their cows show no interest in drinking straight away.


Loosing up to 50 litres of fluid during the birthing process, all cows are extremely thirsty after calving. The key is providing the right water at the right time, says Ms Hart.


“Firstly, do not expect the cow to make her own way to the trough straight after calving and do not expect her to drink from a black slimy water bowl.


“The water should be put in front of her nose and it should be warm.


“Secondly, timing is absolutely crucial and is usually the fundamental mistake made by those farmers whose cows do not seem keen to drink after calving.


“If you give the water as soon as the calf drops and while the cow is still aggressively licking the calf, it will drink as much water as you can provide. If you wait until the calf had started to stand, the cow will become pre-occupied with the calf and less interested in drinking water.”


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