Reboot for the dummy calf

We’ve all had them, the seemingly perfect-looking calf that is too “dumb” to nurse. There’s nothing more frustrating than to get these critters to want to live. As they test your patience, I’ve heard myself say, “just die then.” Of course, you can’t let that happen.

Sometimes these “dummy” calves are clumsy, lethargic and just weak. Many times they are the result of a traumatic birth or C-section. Many times they require tube feeding, which is never ideal. It seems like once they have an esophageal feeding tube feeding, they get even less likely to nurse.

As it turns out, there may be a simple, low-cost and effective way to help them. The “Madigan Squeeze Technique” was developed by Dr. John Madigan, a veterinary professor and equine neonatal health expert at the University of California-Davis. This technique was developed for “dummy” foals as part of his research.

Madigan’s theory is that when animals travel through the birth canal, it causes them a surge of hormones that shut down sedative neurosteroids that keep them calm in the womb. Because they are prey species, it’s important for horses and cattle to make a quick switch to consciousness so that they can run from prey, within a few hours of birth.

The squeeze through the birth canal is thought to help flip a biochemical “on switch” that helps the calf transition quickly from sleep-like state in the womb to being alert and ready to flee. If, for some reason, this transition does not occur, the calf can remain quiet, depressed and detached.

So the technique uses a long, soft rope with three loops around the calf’s chest. Once you’ve pulled on the rope to create pressure, the calf should lie down and get sort of sleepy. Keep them in this position for 20 minutes. Then, remove the rope and help them to stand.

The Madigan squeeze may not save every calf, and it may need to be repeated several times throughout the first few days of life. It’s just another tool in the toolbox that won’t cost you anything to try!

I did try this technique, my own version at least. This calf was a normal delivery but a very quick delivery. The calf showed no interest in nursing. After fussing with the calf, my mother’s udder was less than ideal. I tried the technique. I’m happy to report that the calf is nursing on his own now with no assistance. Was it the technique that saved him? I’m not sure, but glad that it’s over with.


Jody Holthaus41 Posts

Jody Holthaus is the Meadowlark Extension District agent in the area of livestock and natural resources.


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