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Focus on calving cleanliness

By Jerry Rusch, DVM

Good sanitation is critical to ensure sickness is not inadvertently introduced or causes harm to the newborn calf or dam during the calving process.
two brown calves

When attempting to get a live calf on the ground, there are practices you can carry out in order to maximize sanitation and decrease infectious disease. These things can increase the likelihood of a live calf born and eventually weaned.

Prepare equipment and solutions

Before calving season starts, make sure all calving equipment is in one place and readily accessible (see supplies to have on hand sidebar). Make sure obstetrical equipment, including chains and handles, are clean and sterile when providing calving assistance. Although it may be difficult to completely sterilize this equipment between uses, there are ways to decrease bacterial and viral contamination. At the minimum after each use, chains and handles should be washed in soap and water, and dried and stored in a clean, dry place. Producers can also sterilize equipment in boiling water after cleaning with soap and water, a practice similar to how veterinarians sterilize their equipment by autoclaving.

When using this equipment for the actual calving, it is helpful to submerge pieces in a solution of chlorhexidine (Nolvasan®). If unavailable, a solution of Betadine® may be used. Be certain to use a clean bucket as the chains can become dirty during manipulation of the fetus; frequent dipping during usage also helps sanitation.

This solution can be used to clean the gloved-covered hand and arm during assistance as well. When feces or straw from the environment gets on the glove, it needs dipped. 

Utilize single-use veterinary obstetrical gloves to not only help prevent introduction of contaminates into the vagina and uterus, but also to protect the person providing the assistance. This is especially important if dealing with a dead, decomposing fetus. 

Exposure to a dead fetus can lead to a skin infection that may need medical attention.

If this is the situation, carry out immediate thorough cleaning with an iodine-based scrub or solution of the hands, arms, and anything else contaminated. A suggested protective barrier to use when assisting is a calving top or jacket; these are often utilized by veterinarians and are available through MWI at

One of the most crucial factors to help decrease exposure to infectious disease is calving in a clean, dry area free of manure build-up


Lubricate generously

In addition to clean equipment and gloves, plenty of lubrication is especially important. This not only helps the calf come out easier but helps protect the vaginal lining from damage and subsequent infection. There are many formulations available either from MWI or your veterinarian. 

Calve in a clean, dry environment

One of the most crucial factors to help decrease exposure to infectious disease is calving in a clean, dry area free of manure build-up. This also keeps the heifer or cow’s udder clean. Contamination of the udder with mud and manure can affect the calf’s willingness to nurse and increases the direct oral intake of bacteria and viruses. It is especially an important risk factor in the likelihood of scours or introducing Johne’s disease caused by the bacteria, Mycobacterium paratuberculosis (MAP), which a calf can pick up at birth or up to 6 months of age.

Also consider using the Sandhills Calving System, a practice utilized during calving to segregate calves by age as they are born. The goal is to prevent exposure and transmission of disease-causing organisms from older calves to younger calves. This is accomplished by scheduled movement of pregnant cows or heifers to clean calving pastures, while leaving females that have already calved in their current pasture. This is usually done on a 2-week rotation but can be adjusted to a farm’s pasture set-up and herd size. It is a highly effective management tool to help with scours and other calf health issues. It is also a way to assist with nutritional issues of cows or heifers whose body condition scores signify they need energy and protein supplementation.

Set calves up for success

Once you successfully get a live calf on the ground, there are a few things you can do to ensure a healthy calf at weaning.

Depending on the status of the cow, you may need to rub the calf down and clear its mouth of any mucus or obstructions. Use a piece of straw and place it into the calf’s nose to stimulate sneezing and head shaking to clear the airways. Note that hanging a calf upside down to clear its airway is not a good idea; this pushes the abdominal contents against the diaphragm and hinders breathing.

You may need to dry the calf if the coat is wet, especially if raining or icing. Some calves may need taken in and warmed to raise their body temperature; for scenarios like this, a calf warming box is a useful tool to have on hand. Having a plan for adverse weather events is necessary and expecting cows and heifers may need checked more often especially during heavy rain, snow, or an ice storm.

Also very important is to make sure the calf consumes colostrum, preferably within 6 hours of birth but definitely before 24 hours. This provides adequate antibodies to fight disease. Calves that do not intake adequate colostrum can have a 50 percent mortality and are more likely to get sick even later in life in the feedlot (see colostrum article in this issue).

Some calves may need assistance in finding the udder and teats to nurse. If the calf will not nurse, ideally milk out the cow and tube feed the fresh colostrum to the calf. When using a tube feeder, make sure you have been trained in the proper placement; it is possible to pass the tube down the trachea and into the lungs (see tube feeding calves sidebar). If you cannot milk the cow, there are commercially available colostrum replacers and supplements offered by MWI, including its VetOne IgG. For colostrum feeding, reference the protocol for newborn beef calves found in this issue.

Depending on pathogen exposure on the farm or past issues, navel dipping may be considered. This should be discussed with your regular herd-health veterinarian as they are most familiar with your particular situation. It is also a good time to give the calf an injectable trace mineral such as Multimin® 90 to ensure optimal mineral levels for proper immune system development and prevention of selenium, zinc, copper, and manganese deficiency. If there is a chance of fluid in the lungs and a secondary pneumonia, an injectable broad-spectrum antibiotic may be necessary. Depending on the recommendation of your veterinarian, you may also consider an intranasal respiratory vaccine or an oral scour preventative vaccine. This may be deemed necessary, depending on your situation.

After intervening, an injectable broad-spectrum antibiotic and possibly an anti-inflammatory may be necessary to treat the dam. Research has shown that infection introduced while assisting during a calving can increase the breed-back time on that cow and can result in culling from the herd. Work with your veterinarian to develop a treatment plan.

Calf mortality due to introduction of pathogens such as bacteria and viruses can be minimized by keeping cleanliness a priority during and after calving. This can result in not only healthier calves, but a healthier, more profitable herd.

Calving supplies: Have these on hand

Dystocias are less than ideal when calving but being prepared may make the difference in their outcome.

To handle a dystocia, have these basic supplies on hand:

An obstetrical (ob) kit containing ob full arm sleeves, lubricant, bucket, two clean and sanitized ob chains, two ob handles, and a calf extractor/jack. Keep these together so it’s easier to grab and go when a calving emergency arises.

Other supplies to consider: A light source, halter, and catch pen with a head gate. Visit with your herd-health veterinarian about medical supplies to have readily accessible, but they could include an injectable broad-spectrum antibiotic, oxytocin, anti-inflammatory, and steroids.

When tube feeding calves: Pay attention to placement

Being properly trained and prepared to use an oral calf feeder or tube feeder can really pay dividends in saving weak newborn calves. However, proper placement is imperative. If the tube is passed incorrectly, it can enter the windpipe and place the colostrum or electrolytes in the lung, causing death.