Ask the Vet

Delivery Issues are a Bad Start

Problems at birth can set a calf up for serious problems moving forward. (PF photo by Jim Patrico)


I am trying to save a calf. He will not suck a nipple, so we feed him with a tube two times a day. He is 21 days old now. He still does not stand up straight on his front legs and he seems to have no control over them. They just fold under him. His back legs seem fine. What can we do to help him?


This is a case where I would advise getting your herd veterinarian involved early to fully evaluate the situation. My first concern is whether what is going on with his front legs could be related to the feeding problem. Without seeing him, I suspect he may have contracted tendons and possibly nerve damage.

Contracted tendons can occur when a large, developing calf's legs don't have room to move and stay flexed in the last weeks of gestation. Large calves are also more likely to have difficulty being born. Both the amount of pressure and the length of time that pressure exists on those legs can damage nerves in the calf's legs, which can lead to paralysis. Those nerves can also be damaged if the calf had to be pulled, especially if OB chains and a calf jack are used improperly, or a vehicle or tractor was used to pull the calf. Prolonged labor and a difficult birth can even lead to brain damage, which is another possible reason a calf may be slow to get up and begin nursing.

If contracted tendons are the problem, those are typically treated with splints applied to the legs to gradually, gently stretch tendons and straighten legs. This can be successful if done properly; but if done incorrectly, it can cut off circulation and make things worse.

Most normal calves quickly adapt to a bottle. My approach to get them nursing is to back them into a corner, put some milk on the nipple, hold the head up with one hand and put a finger in the calf's mouth to see if it will suck. Then, I slip the nipple into its mouth. You may need to squeeze the nipple or gently close the calf's mouth onto it to get some milk to come out. New nipples can be stiff, so it's not a bad idea to keep an old nipple around to start a calf with. If you don't have one, warming a new nipple can help soften it. Also try enlarging the hole in the nipple to increase milk flow. You might even try a smaller lamb nipple. Switch back to a normal nipple once he starts nursing well.

The biggest concern with a bottle-raised calf is getting milk into its respiratory tract. That can lead to aspiration pneumonia. The risk is higher with calves that don't quickly take to a bottle.

Lastly, you can always try a bucket. Some calves just do better on a bucket than a bottle. They are all individuals, so be patient and keep trying until you find something that works.