One of the most frustrating situations at calving time is when a newborn calf is weak, acts dumb, or will not suckle after birth. These calves can be very time consuming as producers try to get them up and going. There can be multiple causes of calves being weak, slow or not wanting to suckle after birth. We will look first at the possible causes of weakness, and then examine the causes of non-suckling.
Nutritional deficiencies in the cow have emerged as one of the most common causes of what is called “Weak Calf Syndrome”. It can be a late gestation diet of the cow that is low in protein, energy, or micronutrients. In one study, cows fed diets with less than 10 percent protein hay during the last 60 days of gestation experienced an incidence of 8.5% weak calves. Cows with a body condition score of >5 also experienced less chance of weak calves. Cow diets are recommended to contain at least 2 lbs. of protein/day and TDN >56% during those last 60 days before calving.
Micronutrient deficiencies in late gestation cow diets have also resulted in weak or dead calves at birth. Lab work on newborn mortalities revealed that the 33% of the calves were low in Selenium, 80% low in vitamin E and as high as 95% low in vitamin A. Feeding a good mineral with chelated minerals and good fresh vitamins should be standard practice, as feedstuffs stored over winter lose vitamin content.
Common diseases have also occasionally been the cause of weak or stillborn calves. BVD (bovine viral diarrhea) is one disease that has been the cause in certain herds. Lepto has also been associated with weak and stillborn calves. However, 50 years of observation does not show any consistent infectious cause of weak calves.
Sometimes, calves appear normal at birth, and are not weak, but will not suckle. There are several possible causes for this. Pain due to trauma during delivery or shortly after should be considered, particularly in calves from heifers, as well as slow or assisted deliveries.
Hypothermia could be a factor in non-suckling, as the condition happens more easily than people realize, especially if calves are wet, in the wind, or do not have good quality bedding. Producers should make a point to take the calf ’s temperature to determine if they have a cold calf on their hands.
Metabolic acidosis is another common under-diagnosed cause of calves not sucking. Tubing these calves with an alkalinizing electrolyte has helped in mild cases, while more severe cases may require an IV bicarbonate or a lactated ringer solution.
Another thing to consider is that the calf may not be hungry. If colostrum has been tube-fed, these calves may not be interested in suckling for up to 24 hours. Do not tube-milk the next feeding. If anything is given to these calves, it should be an alkalinizing electrolyte. Calves that have been tubed multiple times will lose their suckle reflex and it may take some coaxing with a nipple bottle to get these calves to suckle again.
Navel infection should also not be overlooked. Calves can develop a navel infection within 24 hours of birth and will feel sick with no appetite. These calves need appropriate antibiotics.
We acknowledge Dr. Bob Sager of Medicine Creek Bovine Health Services as the source of some of the information in this article.