Ask the Vet

Be Prepared to Assist Slow Calves After Birth

It is important to know when a calf needs a boost after it is born. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Jennifer Carrico)


If a calf is slow at birth, what suggestions do you have to get it going? I've heard caffeine or other things can give them a boost.


Getting calves off to a good start is extremely important, not just for calf survival, but to avoid neonatal diseases.

The first steps should happen long before the calf is born. Good heifer development and bull selection are critical to avoid difficult births. I prefer both heifers and cows to have a body condition score of about 6. Over-conditioning can be almost as bad as under-conditioning. Match bull calving ease EPDs to your heifers and cows.

The next step is the art of knowing when to intervene to assist a cow in labor. Overly aggressive observation can create problems, but calves that remain in the birth canal too long will usually be weak at birth. My rule is to intervene after a cow has been in hard labor for over an hour and heifers for 2-3 hours, but others have different standards. We had one reader who said he never intervened and over the years had essentially eliminated calving problems.

After a normal birth, calves should breathe within 30 seconds of birth, lift their head within 3 minutes, sit up within 5 minutes, try to stand within 20 minutes, stand within an hour and nurse within 2 hours.

If the calf seems weak or slow to stand, dry it off, dip the navel in a disinfectant like Betadine or chlorhexidine and warm the calf if needed. Continued rubbing of the calf with a towel mimics the cow licking the calf and stimulates the calf. If there is any doubt that the calf got adequate colostrum, give a colostrum replacer (not supplement) using an esophageal feeder.

Caffeine has been used for years in human infants and calves to stimulate breathing. For the first years of my practice life, we had a caffeine injection I found to be very effective, but to my knowledge, it is off the market. Many experts recommend giving weak calves an energy drink like 5-Hour Energy. This can provide up to 200 mg of caffeine. Cold water applied to the ear may also stimulate the calf.

Weak calves, especially those after hard or prolonged birth, may be in considerable pain. Injectable NSAIDs, including flunixin, ketoprofen or meloxicam, have been proven to improve calf vigor and improve weight gain in the first weeks of life. These are all prescription medications, so talk with your veterinarian for guidance on how these drugs should be used.

Editor's Note:

Please contact your veterinarian with questions pertaining to the health of your herd or other animals. Every operation is unique, and the information in this column does not pertain to all situations. This is not intended as medical advice but is purely for informational purposes.

Email Dr. Ken McMillan at