All baby calves are born with some degree of respiratory acidosis. Respiratory acidosis is the buildup of by-products of carbon dioxide and a deficiency of oxygen. As the calf passes through the birth canal, it undergoes this buildup of carbon dioxide and its metabolites, and a deficiency of oxygen. When any baby calf is first born, it will gasp for air and pant for a few minutes in an effort to correct the carbon dioxide/oxygen unbalance in the circulatory system.
Therefore, when a calf is completely delivered, primary attention is directed toward establishing respiration. Mucus and fetal fluids should be removed from the nose and mouth by cleaning these air pathways with your fingers and thumbs. These actions are important for any calf that is assisted during the “calving” process, but they are critical for those calves that come backwards. The common practice of suspending the calf for an extended time by it hindlegs to “clear the lungs”, must be questioned. Most of the fluids that drain from the mouth of these calves probably come from the stomach, and the weight of the intestines on the diaphragm makes expansion of the lungs difficult, if not impossible.
Respiration is stimulated by many factors, but only ventilation of the lungs, allow us to render help immediately. The phrenic nerve can be stimulated with a sharp tap on the chest slightly above and behind where the heartbeat can be felt. Brisk rubbing of the skin (if the calf has not had frost bite) can be helpful in stimulating circulation and breathing activity. Perhaps the most effective and simple approach to stimulating the first breathing activity is by tickling inside of the nostril with a stiff piece of straw. The vigorous tickling stimulation of the nostrils will cause the diaphragm of the calf to have a noticeable reflex. As the calf snorts and coughs in reaction to the straw stimulation, the lungs expand and air is taken in. Many ranchers report that this is a very effective way to get a baby calf started on the necessary process of rapid breathing.
Always know your own limitations. If you find a calving situation that you cannot solve yourself in a short time, contact a large animal veterinarian as soon as possible.
Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension Specialist