First-time Calvers

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A former Animal Health Technician, Shelly Skoberg brings extensive hands-on and technical experience in the cow/calf, feedlot, agronomy and veterinary sectors to her role as Customer Account Manager at UFA. Shelly currently lives on a large, 3,000-acre grain operation, which she farms along with her husband, in Lougheed, Alberta.


Shelly Skoberg, Customer Account Manager

When Push Comes to Shove

After Dystocia – Getting First Calvers and Their Calves Back on Their Feet and Off to a Healthy Start   

When we ask producers what keeps them up at night, as we head into another calving season, the most common answer that we hear is "my first calvers." Understandable. These first-time mothers can deliver a lot of challenges, not to mention sleepless nights.

Dystocia, or difficult or abnormal calving, can be most prevalent with these first-time moms. Typically caused by a large or awkwardly positioned calf, smallness of the maternal pelvis, calf presentation, weak labour, insufficient dilation of the cervix, or uterine twist or torsion – all of these troublesome scenarios will demand calving assistance and place the calf and its mom in life-threatening scenarios.

As some producers will agree, to some degree, Dystocia or assisted calving is "par for the course when dealing with first calvers even despite the best efforts of a sound heifer breeding program." And although delivering a live calf in the face of this adversity is always a relief, it is just the first step. Dystocia is difficult on both the first-time mom and its newborn calf, so it is important to remember that these first calving heifers and their calves will require extra attention to recover and get both lactation and the growth phase off to a healthy start.  

Getting First Calvers Back on Their Feet

After a difficult birth, ensure the cow has clean, soft bedding and access to adequate feed and water. It is important to encourage the dam to get back on her feet as soon as possible. The longer the animal lies, the more trouble she will have with her hind legs and her risk for uterine prolapse will increase if she continues to strain. It is important to note, that after dystocia or assisted birth, the cow can suffer temporary paralysis. This paralysis can last a few hours or even a few days. That is why from the outset, if the calf appears to be large or in a difficult or awkward position to assist, it is critical that you contact your veterinarian immediately, as pulling calves that more than likely qualify to be a C-section commonly causes paralysis.

Beyond Birth – Dystocia Recovery

Calves who have endured a difficult birth can present a diversity of conditions: inflammation, pain, injury, or other ailments from trauma during assisted delivery like severe bruising, fractured ribs or bleeding of the central nervous system. In fact, following dystocia, or a heavily assisted birth, a calf is six times more likely to get sick than a calf born normally, with 69% of all deaths between birth and weaning occurring within the first 96 hours of life.

Lack of oxygen, acidosis and other conditions resulting from dystocia may reduce the calf's vitality – or reduce the calf's ability to have enough strength to consume enough colostrum from its mother within the first six hours of life, which is critical to its immune system and survival. Beyond birth, it is important to keep an attentive eye on the calf and look for signs of stress and reduced vitality.

First Breath

Upon delivery, if the newborn calf is having trouble breathing and requires assistance, immediately place it in the recovery position – with the calf's chest and stomach on the ground. The front and back legs should all be extended forward. By doing this you will be giving both lungs an equal chance and opportunity to expand by reducing the amount of weight placed upon them. Vigorous rubbing will also aid in stimulating the calf's breathing, as will tickling the calf's nose with straw, or applying cold water in the ear. Never hang the calf upside down or hang from the hind legs as this will place additional weight of the gut on the lungs, making it more challenging to breathe and prohibiting the calf's ability to inflate its lungs.

Assessing Risk and Calf Vigour

The calf should display active respiratory movements within 30 seconds of being delivered. Calves that do not respond to respiratory stimulation techniques and cannot sit up on their own after 10 minutes generally do not survive.

Assessing calf vigour following birth can help you identify calves that require additional care. Once breathing, it is important to monitor and evaluate the vitality of the calf and its level of risk. Calves displaying the following symptoms will require more attention and will need to be monitored more closely in its first few days of life:

  • Moderate or complete meconium staining
  • Swollen tongue or head
  • Inability to stand within an hour of birth, lying flat and displaying no effort to rise
  • Signs of oxygenation distress, which show in indications like red gums, or in severe oxygenation, white or blue gums
  • Lack of breath response to a straw tickle inside the nose, or water in the ear
  • Calves that show no sign of active withdrawal when pinching their tongue
  • Abnormal heart rate – check the calf's pulse for 15 seconds, then multiply by four. A normal heart rate is between 24-36 rrpm.

Best Practices Following Dystocia or Assisted Birth

Keep Them Warm

Following dystocia, or assisted calving, calves have an impaired response to cold, so it is important to provide proper bedding. Ideally, these calves should be exposed to a monitored infrared heater to help improve their body temperature.

Ensure Colostrum Intake

Calves need to consume four to 6 quarts of colostrum within the first six hours of their life. Calves that are delayed and/or wedged in the pelvic canal for prolonged periods may be born with a swollen head and/or tongue. In these cases, a stomach tube will likely be required to feed as the calf's ability to suckle is impaired.

Reducing Pain and Supporting Recovery

Newborn calves and their dams can be given non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) following dystocia or assistance at birth. Both Meloxicam™ and Metacam® provide pain relief and reduce fever and inflammation, aiding in recovery and getting them back on their feet sooner with higher colostrum intake.

"It is common practice now to use Meloxicam or Metacam in any painful event in cattle, including dystocia or assisted deliveries," says Dr. Craig Dorin, Agri-Health Services Ltd., Airdrie, Alberta. "No doubt at calving it helps," he says. "Research shows that calves from an assisted delivery will nurse quicker if these types of pain medications are administered."

"Administering either Metacam or Meloxicam during any painful procedure will help aid recovery by addressing pain and inflammation," says Dr. Dorin. "This includes first calf heifers during their recovery from a difficult or assisted birth."

Ensure you talk to your veterinarian regarding Meloxicam and/or Metacam prescription prior to administration in first calvers and newborn calves.


Meloxicam is a trademark of Solvet and is a trademark of Alberta Veterinary Laboratories Ltd. © 2016 Solvet.


Metacam is a registered trademark of Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica GmbH, used under license.

For over 20 years, UFA has supported cow/calf producers by delivering the tools, products, services and support to ensure a healthy start and strong finish to the calving season. To learn more about our products, please visit your local UFA or connect with one of our livestock specialists by calling 1-877-258-4500, Option 1 or visit our Contacts page.