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VIGOR score aids in newborn calf assessment

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 20 November 2012
Christine Murray and Marianne Villettaz Robichaud

Sixty years ago, Dr. Virginia Apgar developed a simple method to evaluate the well-being of a newborn child at birth. Used worldwide, this assessment is performed within minutes of birth using nothing more than a stethoscope and a clock.

Babies are given an APGAR score from 0 to 10, which indicates the child’s initial health status and whether or not medical attention is necessary.



Today, researchers at the University of Guelph have created a similar assessment to evaluate the health of a newborn calf.

Epidemiology Ph.D. candidates Christine Murray and Marianne Villettaz Robichaud have both used the VIGOR score in their research projects.

 Murray explains the acronym VIGOR stands for visual appearance, initiation of movement, general responsiveness, oxygenation and rates.

These parameters were selected because each one can be assessed quickly, on-farm and at birth, she says. None of them are invasive or require laboratory testing. Most are based on observation, with the exception of heart rate and respiration.

Visual appearance
There are two portions to the visual appearance category. The first is the degree of meconium staining. Meconium is the first stool of the calf and, if released in utero during birth, it can stain the hide of the calf.


It is often associated with a stressful calving and can easily be assessed by observation.

The second observed portion is the swelling of the head and/or tongue and the protrusion of the tongue.

Initiation of movement
Given the time of the assessment in the relation to the time of birth, the calf should reach certain milestones in regards to movement.

The assessor should note the time and determine what movement has occurred to this point. Is the calf standing and walking? Has it only reached sternal position (laying upright)?

“Calves with less vigor are less able to stand right away,” Murray says.

General responsiveness
A number of tests can be performed to gauge the responsiveness of the calf. When a piece of straw is placed in the nasal cavity of the calf, the animal should shake its head vigorously.


If the tongue is pinched, the calf should quickly withdraw it. When the eyeball is touched, the calf should blink and close its eye. Lesser movements or no response to these stimuli would indicate lower vigor in the calf.

In this category, a visual assessment of the calf’s mucous membrane is scored. The inside of the mouth should be a bright pink. If it is light pink or bluish it means there is a lack of oxygen.

If the assessor is present during calving, they can also measure the length of tongue protruding from the calf’s lips. Murray says a graduate student in Iowa found an association with reduced oxygenation in calves to the length of tongue during calving.

Checking the heart rate and respiration of the calf can give a good indication if the calf is anxious or stressed. The heart rate can be taken by placing a hand on the calf’s chest.

Count the pulse for 15 seconds and then multiply by four. This method can also be used in counting the number of breaths taken by the calf.

Each category and the parameters within are currently undergoing research to determine if they are the best criteria to use.

“All of those are easy to measure, but just because there is a tool there doesn’t mean it is necessary,” Villettaz Robichaud says.

Research will answer if some criteria are closely related to others and, if so, it might be removed from the score sheet. However, Villettaz Robichaud predicts a very small reduction to what is already there.

University of Guelph: Calf vitality score sheet
Murray adds that the way the score is tallied may also change prior to it being published in a scientific journal. As it stands now (see Table 1), the higher the score, the less vigorous the calf.

Click here or on the image at right to view it at full size in a new window.

That is contrary to the APGAR score and can be confusing as one references vigor score versus the vigor of the calf, she says.

Villettaz Robichaud stresses that, in either case, the emphasis should not be on the actual score but more in taking the time to do all of the steps to fully assess the calf.

She recently put this assessment into practice through a research project on a commercial dairy farm in Wisconsin.

Villettaz Robichaud was looking at calving management – what level of assistance was needed and when was it provided.

She was present for all 250 calvings and gathered a VIGOR score for each one.

She is just starting to analyze the data but says she can already conclude that health, growth and survival can all be linked to the score the calves received at birth.

While working in tandem with herdsmen at the dairy, Villettaz Robichaud says they were already performing part of the assessment without even knowing about it.

Calves that were unresponsive, brown and swollen were closely monitored for a longer amount of time.

In fact, most dairy producers naturally check one or more of these criteria.

“Doing a little is better than doing nothing,” Villettaz Robichaud says, “but doing all is probably best.”

“Once you get the hang of it, it only takes two minutes or less per calf. It’s quick. It’s easy,” she says.

Recording an actual score could serve as a useful management tool.

It could help determine quality or quantity of colostrum given, which treatments are administered, early housing requirements, etc.

In Murray’s research she is trying to determine the efficacy of Metacam NSAID therapy for improving the health of newborn calves.

(Editor’s note: Metacam is currently not approved for use on calves unless there is an onset of diarrhea or for the relief of pain following debudding.

Special permission was granted to Murray and her research team in the instances stated below. Always check with your veterinarian before adopting a new treatment protocol.)

In one trial, she visited 10 commercial herds in Ontario. Producers were instructed to randomly administer a vial that contained either Metacam or a placebo to the calves at birth.

At the same time a VIGOR score was calculated and recorded for each calf. Calves were then checked and measured at 1, 2, 3 and 6 weeks old.

A second trial was performed on a single farm with visits three times a week. Again, calves were administered randomized vials of Metacam or placebo and assigned a VIGOR score. These calves were followed at 1, 2, 3 and 8 weeks and milk intake data was collected.

According to Murray, calves determined to have low vigor at birth were worse off healthwise later on in life. “With the administration of Metacam, we’re not seeing the same association,” she says. Therefore, treating calves with a higher VIGOR score (or low vigor) with Metacam could be beneficial.

She also found that calves in these studies that were born from a more difficult birth did have higher VIGOR scores and need close attention early in life.

Murray adds that having access to a number like this could really impact the veal industry. Producers of veal calves could make purchase decisions based upon a calf’s VIGOR score.

“It is a very nice tool that we still need to set in stone,” Villettaz Robichaud says.

By taking a couple of minutes early in a calf’s life to assess its initial health could provide the farm with a number that can be managed in hours, days and weeks after birth.

As someone who has also VIGOR scored hundreds of calves, Murray says, “It can be predictive of the future health and vitality of the calf. We need to put it to good use.”  PD

University of Guelph Ph.D. candidates, Christine Murray, left, and Marianne Villettaz Robichaud, right, have been using a new VIGOR scoring system for newborn calf assessment. They both claim it will be a useful and easy tool for dairy producers to implement on-farm. Photo courtesy of Karen Lee.