Typically, a calf will begin to breathe and struggle to its feet immediately it is free of the cow. It should also attempt to suckle very soon after birth. This is an important process upon which much of the subsequent health and growth potential of the calf depends.

If the calf is slow to start breathing, the following methods may help:

- Clear any membranes or mucus from the nose and mouth

- Hold the calf by the hind legs and swing it around a few times

- Insert a fairly rigid piece of straw well up into the nostril and moving it up and down may stimulate breathing

- Place the calf on its brisket with its front legs pointing forward and apply intermittent pressure to the lower part of the chest.

- Throw a bucket of cold water over the head and chest of the calf.

- If all else fails (and you are really keen) blow into the calf’s mouth in ‘mouth-to-mouth’ fashion.

- The first milk from the cow is called colostrum and, among other things, it contains immunoglobulins that can provide protection against disease for the calf until its own immune system can develop.

Both the level of immunoglobulins and the calf’s ability to absorb them quickly diminish after birth. For this reason, it is important that the calf receives at least one good colostrum feed (2 to 4 litres) within the first six hours of life.


Colostrum is the first milk produced by the cow and it is vital to the survival and good growth rate of the calf. Colostrum is milk that is reinforced with proteins and vitamins that concentrate in the cow's udder in the last few days before calving. Colostrum differs very greatly from normal cow's milk.

The NFS (i.e. Non Fat Solids) of colostrum is much higher than that of milk because colostrum has higher protein levels. Within the protein in colostrum is the life saving ingredient, gamma globulin. Gamma globulin is a complex protein that provides immunoglobulins (antibodies from the mother) to the calf.

The calf will inevitably pick up bacteria from its environment in the first days of life. Actually, this is essential, as bacteria are needed in the gut to start off the rumen activity that is so necessary to digestion.

Unfortunately, the first bacteria to colonise the digestive system include Escherichia coli and Clostridium perfringens, both of which cause enteritis.

A calf will be protected from enteritis and other calf diseases if it has taken in enough colostrum.

This is because the colostrum will have supplied the calf with its mother's antibodies that will fight against infection. Calves that do not take in sufficient colostrum are open to infection. 

Newly born calves have no antibodies of their own during the first two weeks of life. With time, calves will develop their own defence system - this is called active immunity. Until this happens, the calf relies on the passive immunity of the mother's antibodies passed on in the colostrum for its protection against disease.

Colostrum is also rich in energy as it has a high fat content.

In terms of nutrition, energy is more important to a newly born calf than protein.

One big difference between colostrum and milk that is not shown in the analysis is the colour. Colostrum has a rich, yellow colour because of the amount of carotene it contains. Carotene is the yellow pigment that gives the colour to carrots and it is associated with the production of Vitamin A.

Colostrum is higher in Vitamins A, D and E and these are very important vitamins for the young animal. Calves have very few reserves of vitamins so rely on colostrum for them.  However, the number and quality of vitamins in colostrum will depend on the nutrition of the cow before birth.  Carotene is plentiful in fresh green foods like pasture and well preserved silage but is low in hay and roots.

The best colostrum comes from older cows that have been on your farm for some time, as they will have built up specific immunities to the organisms prevalent on your property. 

First calvers (particularly if they have been agisted off-farm), induced cows, bought-in replacements and cows with milk fever will all produce colostrum of lesser quality. In these instances and on occasions when the cow dies shortly after birth, it may be wise to keep some frozen colostrum from the previous year (12 months frozen storage is safe) to ensure all new calves are properly protected.

If necessary, calves bought-in as replacements can be blood tested for their immunoglobulin levels to ascertain that they have received their colostrum feed.  Some important points to remember about colostrum are:

- The sooner a calf drinks colostrum the better.

- The more colostrum a calf drinks the better.

- The first six hours after birth provide the most antibodies in the colostrum.

- If a calf won't drink from its dam, bottle or stomach tube the colostrum to the calf in at least 4 feeds (each of 1.5 litres) in the first 6 to 8 hours.

- If a cow dies while calving, ensure the calf is given colostrum substitute.

Minimize Stress

 Stress can have a big impact upon the success or failure of calving. To minimize stress:

- Observe the cow closely as calving approaches, for any signs of labour.

- As soon as labour starts, monitor the cow for anything abnormal.

- Earlier intervention in any problems will reduce the quantity of intervention and ultimate level of stress on both the mother and calf.

- It is important to have experienced and trained people who know how to react, present during birth.

Maintain Good Hygiene

 A clean environment during calving, will reduce exposure to pathogens, and the potential for the calf to become infected. Clean bedding is essential.

The calf’s navel should be cleaned with a 7% tincture of iodine (immediately after birth). Without navel disinfection the mortality rate increases by 11%.