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Drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning can offer that initial dose of caffeine-induced motivation and energy needed to get the day started. It can turn lethargy into action. What caffeine does for humans can also be used to get your calves going, says Sheila McGuirk, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

According to McGuirk, caffeine works to stimulate the clearing receptor of a compound called adenosine, which is present in the brain. Inflammation causes adenosine levels to rise, and when adenosine levels are elevated, the respiratory system is depressed and muscle contraction is hindered, which can result in pronounced drowsiness and lethargy.

When the receptor responsible for clearing excess adenosine is stimulated, it works faster to remove excess adenosine and thereby mitigates the negative side effects associated with elevated adenosine.  Therefore, caffeine exerts an effect on stimulation of respiratory rate, tidal volume, pulmonary blood flow, and alters basal metabolic rate. 

An oral dose of caffeine is very quickly and efficiently absorbed—with peak absorption occurring in as little as minutes following administration,” McGuirk says.

“If we apply caffeine’s mode of action to an intervention designed to stimulate a response from a challenged calf, we may have just the opportunity needed to get them going,” says Nathan Upah, rumen technical leader with Techmix. “At minimum, this can help get them onto their feet and nursing, and could even save their lives. At the same time, this can save a producer an unquantifably amount of angst, and potentially a lot of money.”

According to a Colorado State study in the mid 1990’s, dystocia rates in beef and dairy heifers were very close to 16%  while mature cows were less than 3%.  Results also showed that 30% of calves that experienced difficult births will die as a result of the event or from associated complications. 

McGuirk and Upah offer three scenarios where caffeine intervention might be considered :

  • Within a few hours of birth for calves with slow development (delayed standing attempts, slow to stand (> 1 hour), sluggish reflexes, low heart rate (< 80/min) or abnormal respiratory rate or pattern of breathing
  • Following transport – upon arrival for calves that are cold, sluggish, unwilling to eat or drink
  • For calves that have apparently recovered from a disease problem like scours or another digestive upset but remain sluggish, depressed, and have no (or reduced) appetite for milk
  • Hypothermic calves to temporarily elevate body temperature and stimulate the central nervous system.

“Reprinted by permission of Farm Journal media, September 2018”

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