Impact Of Dystocia On Newborn Calf Vigour

The effects of dystocia on calves are discussed by Dr Ken Leslie, from the University of Guelph, Canada. Charlotte Johnston, TheCattleSite Editor reports.
calendar icon 12 July 2011
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4th Boehringer Ingelheim Expert Forum on Farm-Animal Well-Being

How Does Dsytocia Affect Calves?

Approximately 40 per cent of all calf births require assistance, said Dr Leslie, speaking at the 4th Boehringer Ingleheim Welfare Forum.

Difficulties at birth (dystocia) have subsequent health effects on newborn calves, and account for 50 per cent of all calf deaths.

20.6 per cent of heifers exported to dystocia die before 120 days, whilst dystocia and subsequent health events account for 50 per cent of all calf deaths.

There are a number of causes of mortality and morbidity including:

  • Respiratory and metabolic acidosis
  • Hypoxia
  • Fractures and trauma
  • Stillbirth
  • Morbidity and mortality
  • Failure of passive transfer (FPT)

FPT is one of the major causes of increased mortality and morbidity in calves.

FPT is when a calf doesn't receive enough colostrum in the first 24 hours of life. FPT can be measured through levels of serum immunoglobin and serum total protein in the blood.

Why does dystocia cause FPT?

Dystocia weakens a calf, making it harder for the calf to get up and drink, as well as reducing its suckling reflex.

This lack of initial colostrum results in FPT, says Dr Leslie.

Colostrum management is the single more important management factor in calf health and survival. Despite this message been constantly repeated in farming press, calves are still dying due to a lack of colostrum.

If the calf does survive, a lack of colostrum has a significant impact on the long term vigour of the calf.

Effects on long term calf vigour

Studies have shown that the frequency of disease before weaning was 59 per cent in calves with serum total protein lesser or equal to 6 g/ dL, where as morbidity was 19 per cent in those with higher total protein values.

Calves that died from diarrhea, septicemia, or pneumonia between birth and 14 weeks of age, also had lower than average serum protein concentrations.

Other studies have demonstrated that FPT and subsequent disease can affect average daily liveweight gains, age at first calving and mean early culling.

Measuring Calf Distress: calf vitality scoring

Dr Leslie has been working with the University of British Columbia Dairy Research Centre to develop a scoring system, which measures newborn calf vitality.

The system which has been established is called VIGOR, and involves the scoring of a number of factors after the birth of the calf.

Management of dystocia on modern dairy herds is largely aimed at maintaining a healthy and fertile cow, says Dr Leslie. Methods to determine the vitality of the fetus during parturition are very limited.

Visual Appearance: Meconium staining, a difficult and prolonged labour increases the risk that meconium will be released into the amniotic fluid. Ms Hard recommends scoring the calf on levels of staining, as this will confirm the levels of meconium released.

Tongue/ head, the more swollen the tongue and head of the calf, the higher the score it should be given.

Initiation of movement: This refers to the time it takes the calf to stand or the attempts it takes to stand.

General responsiveness: This looks at how the calf responds to a number of things - such as straw up the nose, tongue pinch, and eye reflect in response to touching eyeball.

During hypoxia, tissues that are low in oxygen are filled with darker, deoxygenated blood. This test involves looking at mucous membrane colour - the darker the colour (ie. blue/ purple as opposed to pink) the greater the stress at birth.

Rates: Heart rates and respiration rates are measured.

Concluding, Dr Leslie said that dystocia severley impairs calf performance. Research on farms has demonstrated the usefulness of a calf VIGOR scoring system for use as an on-farm predictor of future health, performance and survival.

Dr Leslie also recommends looking a NSAIDS such as metacam as a therapy for calves after dystocia, or for those calves with a poor (higher) calf VIGOR score.

July 2011

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