THE COLOSTRUM COUNSEL - Effects of Calving Difficulty on Newborn Calf Vigor

A difficult birth is not just hard on the cow, the calf suffers too. Studies have shown that following a difficult birth, calves have reduced vigor and motivation to consume colostrum, having long-term consequences for calf health. Through this research, administering meloxicam (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) following birth, shows considerable promise for the improvement of calf vigor and health.

Newborn calves suffer from pain and trauma following a difficult birth, which may have long-term consequences for health and productivity. University of Guelph researchers, Drs. Christine Murray and Ken Leslie, have developed an on-farm tool to assess birth trauma in the newborn calf. Similar to the Apgar score for newborn human babies, the calf VIGOR score uses easily observable and measureable signs that can indicate distress in the newborn calf. These signs include: Visual appearance of the calf, notably, swollen head or tongue and the degree of meconium staining; Initiation of movement after birth; General responsiveness to stimuli including straw in the nasal cavity; Oxygenation of the calf by noting the colour of the mucous membranes; as well as heart and respiration Rates. Note that the first letters of these signs make up the word VIGOR.

Calves may suffer from a wide range of problems following a difficult calving, including injury and pain from rib fractures and compression of the skull in the birth canal, acidosis from an inability to regulate respiration, and a reduced ability to maintain a normal body temperature. The signs included in the VIGOR score have been chosen to help producers identify calves that may be suffering from these issues. The results of this research suggest that the VIGOR score is an excellent indicator of the degree of trauma experienced at birth, and is associated with the future health and growth of the calf. As such, this tool can help producers figure out if a calf needs extra assistance following birth to improve health and performance. 


This graph shows the effect of calving difficulty on newborn vigor (higher VIGOR score indicates a lower state of vitality). 

When calves are suffering from trauma and pain after a difficult calving, they are less motivated to stand and suckle. In one of our recent studies, we found that calves born following calving difficulty were more acidotic and took longer to attain sternal recumbency and stand, compared to calves born unassisted. If the calf is not able to get up in a timely manner following birth, this may lead to a delay in colostrum intake. Thus, calving difficulty is a major cause of failure of transfer of maternal immunity. Furthermore, the effects of calving difficulty on blood pH have been shown to impair immunoglobulin absorption. Calves suffering from acidosis following birth may not absorb immunoglobulins as efficiently as calves with a normal blood pH. 

There are many standard interventions, such as artificial respiration, that have been developed to help producers improve the vitality and reduce the risk of failure of passive transfer, morbidity and mortality in calves. A more novel method that has been tested in this research is therapy for pain and inflammation from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as meloxicam. Through this research, giving meloxicam to calves at birth has proven to have many benefits including improved calf vigor, suckle reflex, milk intakes and overall pre-weaning health. Furthermore, meloxicam treatment to calves born from assisted births had a 1 kg advantage in weight gain in their first week of life. Since NSAID treatment to newborn calves is currently off-label, producers should talk to their veterinarian before administering the drug.

Supervisors for this research include Drs. Todd Duffield, Derek Haley, David Pearl, Doug Veira and Ms. Kathleen Shore. This research is supported by the Agricultural Adaption Council through the Ontario Veal Association, Boehringer Ingelheim Canada and the Dairy Farmers of Ontario.

Christine  Murray, PhD
Christine Murray, PhD
Ruminant Nutrition Research Scientist - Nutreeco Canada

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