It should be a common philosophy among dairy veterinarians that it is far preferable to get off to a good start and assure/maintain
health than to make up for deficiencies later and treat disease. With these principles in mind it is important to recognize
that the overwhelming majority of all dairy calves delivered in the U.S. will be attended by dairy personnel rather than veterinarians.
What takes place during a delivery, and how calves are observed and treated after delivery will depend mainly upon the knowledge,
skills, and focus of dairy personnel.
In cases of dystocia, prolonged birth asphyxia can present a significant challenge to the health of the newborn calf. Because
removal of the calf from the birth canal is the primary focus of most assisted deliveries, the process is often considered
successful when the calf has been delivered, and careful assessment of the calf is often forgotten. There is a strong tendency
to assume calves will survive and perform normally, and no specific treatment or monitoring is initiated. Commonly, problems
in calves following dystocia are detected long after the optimal time to address them, and the fact that the problems are
associated with dystocia goes unrecognized. Better health can be achieved in dystocia affected calves if a routine monitoring
system is followed and supportive care is provided before problems develop. The most important first step in improving survival
and health of calves following dystocia, is recognizing that all such calves are compromised by the dystocia event.
In the dairy industry, the problem of dystocia has traditionally been underestimated, resulting in poorly defined dystocia
rates that are seldom studied. Actual dystocia rates for dairy cattle are difficult to find and interpret in the literature,
reflecting the lack of attention the topic receives. A recent study evaluated 666,341 calving records and reported dystocia
rates for primiparous and multiparous dams over a 12-year period. They estimated a primiparous and multiparous dystocia rate
(score>1) of 28.6% and 10.7%, respectively. Our recent study of the impacts of dystocia on calf health and survival included
dairies with overall dystocia rates above 30%. Since dystocia is a very common occurrence and the negative impacts on calf
health are so profound, it is important for personnel to monitor frequently for impending delivery and to know when and how
Many veterinarians and producers in the dairy industry have found routine, well defined protocols to be useful tools in dairy
management. Delivery management is a prime example of the challenges of protocol implementation. There is great individual
variation between cows in the intensity of signs of first stage labor, the duration of first stage labor, and the rate of
delivery of the calf during second stage labor. For workers to apply delivery protocols with good judgment requires that they
be well educated about the delivery process, what to look for as normal versus abnormal delivery, what time periods are appropriate
for waiting versus action, and how to observe cattle without disturbing their delivery. In the event that close physical examination
is required, workers need to be well trained in keeping cattle calm and doing vaginal examination with good hygiene.
The ideal way to avoid the negative impacts of dystocia on calves and dams would be to prevent its occurrence. Given the apparent
high incidence of dystocia in the dairy industry, efforts to minimize the problem seem well warranted. However, dystocia is
a complex problem, without an easy management solution, so whatever efforts are made to promote easy deliveries will certainly
not eliminate the problem. When dystocia does occur, prompt and well-directed efforts to assist delivery, as well as postnatal
calf care are critical to minimizing the severity of the negative impact on animal health. All personnel involved in calf
delivery should be well educated about the process and well trained in appropriate skills and techniques. In our experience,
it is uncommon for dairy owners or workers to have been educated and trained about calf delivery methods.
The most critical first step in educating dairy workers about dystocia management is to affirm an appropriate philosophy
about goals. Difficult deliveries are commonly seen as problems or accidents or nuisances that need to be dealt with, but
that interfere with productive work. It is easy to see how this attitude leads to inappropriate decision-making and behavior,
for example: wait and deal with it later; get it over as quickly as possible; the job is done when the calf has been removed
from the cow. Looked at from a different perspective, dystocia events are opportunities to provide care to a mother and baby
that have a significant challenge. Our goal should be to provide the best, most well directed efforts to assure that both
animals meet the challenge and go on to live healthy and productive lives. This philosophy leads to very different decisions
and actions than the former attitude.
Learning issues for people delivering calves include a broad range of assessments and activities. Veterinarians have been
educated on all of these topics and can share that knowledge with the people who deliver calves on dairies. Important topics
include: assessment of the dam; restraint and positioning; hygiene and lubrication; position presentation and posture of the
calf; assessment of calf viability; manipulation techniques; guidelines for delivery procedures, including equipment needs,
force and direction of pull, timing, and assessment of progress. It is critical for workers to develop the judgment to determine
when to proceed, when to wait, and when to call for professional assistance.
A simple but effective monitoring program includes assessment of the dam's health, the type of delivery, the maturity of the
newborn, and the physical and behavioral characteristics of the newborn. Calves born from an ill dam or with any degree of
dystocia, or that appear premature at birth, will have an increased likelihood of encountering adaptive problems. If these
problems are anticipated and treated before they manifest overtly, the likelihood of survival and reasonably good health can
be increased dramatically. Such calves can be promptly dried and warmed, provided adequate shelter, stimulated to move about
and suckle, and provided colostrum early and for a prolonged duration. Additional treatments to circumvent hypoxemia and acidosis
would include nasal insufflation of oxygen and intravenous fluid therapy if the dairy is prepared to provide such care. Hypoglycemia
can be easily monitored and managed with intravenous supplementation.