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Lack of Oxygen Complicates Calves' First Breaths

Lack of Oxygen Complicates Calves' First Breaths
Some calves may be sluggish to correct respiratory acidosis shortly after birth

Cow-calf producers typically spend plenty of time preparing for the arrival of new calves: carefully selected genetics for ease of birthing, plenty of herd checks and a heat lamp or two. But once the calf hits the ground, the next step is to ensure it is breathing properly.

"It's important to remember that every baby calf has a certain degree of respiratory acidosis, one reason why producers need to keep as close an eye as possible on newborns," said Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension emeritus livestock specialist.

Some calves may be sluggish to correct respiratory acidosis shortly after birth

Acidosis is the result of oxygen deprivation and accumulation of carbon dioxide that results from passage of the calf through the birth canal. The excess of carbon dioxide results in a buildup of lactic acid.

Typically, a healthy calf will pant vigorously shortly after birth, its body working to auto-correct the lack of oxygen and the excess of carbon dioxide and its by-products.

"Unfortunately, some calves may be sluggish and slow to begin this corrective process," Selk said. "It's imperative that newborn calves begin to breathe as soon as possible, and that means producers need to be both watchful and knowledgeable about how to render assistance."

Related: Prepare Now for a Successful Spring Calving Season

To stimulate the initiation of the respiratory process, first manually clear the newborn calf's mouth and nasal passages of fluids and mucus.

"Hanging the calf over a fence is not the best method to initiate breathing," Selk said. "The weight of the calf on the fence restricts the movement of the animal's diaphragm muscle. This diaphragm activity is necessary to expand the lungs to draw in needed oxygen."

Selk suggests a better method is to briskly tickle the inside of the calf's nostrils with a straw. This will usually initiate a reflex action such as a snort or cough in the newborn, expanding its lungs and allowing air to enter.

"Expect the calf to pant rapidly for a few minutes after the snort or cough," Selk said. "Again, panting is the natural response, increasing oxygen intake and promoting carbon dioxide release and allowing the calf to reach normal blood gas concentrations."

Source: OSU

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