Weak calf syndrome causes

By Megan Van Emon

Montana State University Extension

Newborn calves that suffer from weak calf syndrome are those that are not able to rise or are slow to rise, stand or nurse. Calves born in this condition will often die within a few days after birth.

There are several possible reasons for weak calf syndrome including bad weather; selenium deficiency; poor nutrition during late gestation; dystocia; and other trauma to the calf.

The atypical winter and spring we have experienced in Montana paired with extreme temperature variations stressed cows during gestation, directly impacting their immunity. Sheltered areas for gestating cows can reduce the risk of weak calf syndrome.

Selenium deficiency causes white muscle disease. If cows are selenium deficient during gestation, calves may be born with weak muscles, which includes a weak heart and may lead to the death of the calf soon after birth.

Cows consuming a low protein (less than 10 percent CP) or low energy diet during the 60 days prior to calving have been shown to have a greater incidence of weak calves at birth. Therefore, providing a good quality diet in the last 60 days prior to calving is crucial to minimizing syndrome incidence in your herd.

Dystocia and other trauma to the calf also have the potential to cause weak calf syndrome. The stress of the trauma can negatively impact calf immunity. The additional stress can cause the calf to become hypoxic (low oxygen levels), which may cause neonatal acidosis. If neonatal acidosis occurs, calves that do suckle are unable to absorb the needed antibodies from the colostrum. The lack of antibodies from the cow’s colostrum may lead to additional illness as the calves age.

Calves should nurse within an hour after birth to absorb the needed maternal antibodies from colostrum.

If a calf is born weak, the calf will need help to suckle and may require additional help to keep warm. If a calf is dehydrated at birth, electrolytes and warm fluids may be required to help the calf rehydrate. Having a veterinarian examine weak calves may aid in determining the underlying cause and a plan may be prepared to minimize the occurrence of weak calves in the future.