Minimising calving difficulties - Calf care after calving

Welcome to the minimising calving difficulties series. This section's focus is calf care after calving, including colostrum management and pen hygiene.

Immediately post-calving

A calf needs to breathe as soon as possible after it has been born. If the calf does not do so automatically, clear the mouth and nasal passages of fluids and mucus, then tickle inside the nostrils with a piece of straw.

Credit David Black 

This should cause a reflex response, which makes the calf snort or cough, thus expanding the lungs and allowing air to enter.

If there is a lot of mucus in the nose and airways, it can help, if possible, to briefly pick the calf up by its back legs. This should only be done for a few seconds because the guts will push on the diaphragm and prevent the calf from breathing.

Never hang a calf over a gate by its back legs as this can cause nerve damage.

When resuscitating a calf, sit it upright so that the lower lung is not collapsed by the weight of the other lung and heart. Gently slapping the sides of the chest with the palm of a cupped hand will help to clear the lower airways.

The calf may pant after breathing is initiated because this helps to increase oxygen intake and carbon dioxide release. It is a good sign if a calf is sitting upright within 20 minutes of birth. It is then likely to stand and suckle and ingest colostrum. If the calf continues to pant for more than 20 minutes, seek veterinary advice.


Once the calf is born, it is vital that it suckles long enough to take in adequate colostrum. It is not safe to assume that a calf lying peacefully soon after birth has had a good feed of colostrum – it probably has not. If in doubt, check it has a full stomach.

Calves that have born after an assisted calving procedure or caesarean section are at high risk of receiving inadequate colostrum and should always be fed it manually. They should be helped to suckle, hand-fed or fed with a stomach tube, as soon after birth as possible.

It is a good idea to have a supply of frozen colostrum on hand during the calving period. However, this must be carefully warmed in warm water because the colostrum proteins that transfer immunity can easily be destroyed by overheating. 

Do not use a microwave to warm colostrum

Colostrum contains nutrients as well as antibodies, but must be consumed by the calf within six hours of birth for it to acquire satisfactory passive immunity. Calves require three litres or 10% of body weight of good quality colostrum (50 g/L of immunoglobulin G, IgG) as soon as possible after birth and after six hours will require another similar size feed. This is equivalent to 20 minutes of suckling. As such, weak calves that cannot suck vigorously for 20 minutes should be supplemented by stomach tube.

It is estimated that half of all calves born do not receive adequate colostrum. This is because of:

  • Delayed or insufficient intake
  • Poor/inexperienced mothers (heifers)
  • Pendulous udders and enlarged teats
  • Milk fever
  • Difficult calving’s
  • Poor colostrum quality
  • Dilute colostrum from high-yielding cows
  • Poor dry cow nutrition

Calves that do not receive enough colostrum are four times more likely to die because of a lack of absorbed antibodies.

While there are several colostrum replacement products, many contain relatively low levels of antibodies, hence cows’ colostrum is always preferable. Where possible, try to freeze excess colostrum from higher yielding cows on the farm, or source colostrum from a dairy farm of the same or better health status.


At birth, the calf’s navel should be dipped in a 10% iodine tincture and this repeated 2–4 hours later, particularly if it has been licked excessively by its mother. Do not use products containing antibiotics, such as ‘blue spray’, on the calf’s navel. Iodine is better because it is not only antibacterial, but will also help the navel to dry.


Segregate older calves from calves that are less than one week old. This reduces the risk of scour-causing pathogens transferring between the young animals.


Calves born indoors need to be in dry pens with plenty of airflow, but no draught. The air should be fresh and not stale; a human crouching at calf level should not feel any air movement.

Pens should be cleaned regularly. Try the ‘squelch test’. When jumping on the straw there should be a rustling sound. If there is a ‘squelch’, the pen needs mucking out.

Where cows and calves are to be housed for some time, particularly if stocking densities are high, creating a calf ‘crèche’ at the end of the pen will ensure that calves have a cleaner space to lie and are less at risk of injury.

Explore the below sections for guidance on minimising calving difficulties throughout different stages of production.

The information on these pages was compiled by Katie Thorley, AHDB Beef & Lamb and David Black, Paragon Veterinary Group and reviewed by Dr Alexander Corbishley, University of Edinburgh.