Beef Calf Viability - Check the Suck Reflex

Calf suckling

For beef calves, ensuring good calf viability is essential for rapid and sufficient ingestion and absorption of colostrum.  Many of the young suckled calf losses that we all see relate in some way to hypogammaglobulinaemia.     

The University of Calgary has recently carried out a research project looking at factors which can be assessed in the newborn calf to predict whether they will ingest colostrum in the first four hours of life which has some practical findings of use as this year’s spring calving progresses:


Not surprisingly, dystocia was a strong predictor of whether a calf would ingest colostrum or not.  Calves were assigned a score of:

1 – no assistance

2 – easy assistance

3 – difficult assistance


The table below shows the percentage of calves in each category which failed to suck within four hours.


Dystocia Score

Percentage of calves which failed to ingest colostrum within 4 hours of birth

1 14
2 39
3 64


In addition to this, the suck reflex after birth was also found to have a strong correlation with the likelihood of ingesting colostrum.  The information below combines the dystocia score with the suck reflex to illustrate the likelihood of a calf failing to ingest colostrum within 4 hours of birth given the degree of calving difficulty and whether the suck reflex was weak or strong.



PLUS GOOD SUCK REFLEX = 8% failed to ingest colostrum

PLUS POOR SUCK REFLEX = 78% failed to ingest colostrum



              PLUS GOOD SUCK REFLEX = 26% failed to ingest colostrum

                           PLUS POOR SUCK REFLEX = 94% failed to ingest colostrum



              PLUS GOOD SUCK REFLEX = 49% failed to ingest colostrum

                           PLUS POOR SUCK REFLEX = 98% failed to ingest colostrum


It is interesting that 78% of calves not thought to have had difficult calvings, but with a weak suck reflex failed to ingest colostrum within 4 hours.  This likely reflects calvings which were unassisted, but took a long time to occur, leaving the calf hypoxic and acidotic.

The message from this is that particular attention should be given to ensuring colostrum administration in calves which have a weak suck reflex after birth as well as those which have had a difficult calving. 

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