An Introduction to Neonatal Management

Neonatal Management
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The care of neonates is key to the success of livestock operations as youngstock will contribute to the future performance of the farm. A neonate is defined as an animal that is less than 4 weeks of age. Simply put, neonates are your future!


Neonates Need Extra Attention

During this early period of life, neonates are subjected to a wide variety of challenges that can affect their health and performance. These groups of animals are particularly vulnerable because they often have underdeveloped immune systems, which put their health and welfare at greater risk.

In fact, during this neonatal period, the highest levels of disease and death occur. The table below highlights the ranges in mortality that have been found in the neonatal period1:

Species Range of neonatal mortality1,2
Calves 0 to 15%
Foals 0 to 35%
Piglets 12 to 19%
Kids 7 to 17%
Lambs 10 to 25%
Chicks 1 to 3%


What’s Causing Neonatal Mortality?

When evaluating the common reasons for mortality, there are several factors that predispose neonates to death.


These include1:

  • Low body temperature or hypothermia
  • Underfeeding of the pregnant animal
  • Mismothering
  • Infections
  • Injuries


Let’s look at each of these in more detail!


The two main causes of hypothermia (when the body’s temperature drops below normal levels) include:

  1. Excessive heat loss
  2. Impaired heat production
  • 1. Excessive Heat Loss

  • 2. Impaired Heat Production

Underfeeding During Pregnancy

Underfeeding pregnant animals can have a significant effect on both the newborn and the dam. Underfeeding has been related to reduced placental size, poor fetal growth, limited fetal fat reserves, and low colostrum/milk production. All of these outcomes have been associated with a higher risk of death, especially when combined with cold temperatures. It is important to ensure that the ration being fed to pregnant animals is well balanced for vitamins and minerals, and enough energy is being provided to ensure a well-developed fetus is born with an ample supply of nutrients.

Maternal-Neonate Bond

Certain species such as sheep, goats, beef cattle, and horses can have significant issues with mismothering, which is where a failure to establish an effective bond between the mother and newborn can lead to neglect and starvation of the newborn. 


There are many reasons for weakened maternal-neonate bond including:

  • Inexperience in first time dams
  • Underfeeding in late pregnancy 
  • Exhaustion due to a difficult labour
  • Separation of the dam and newborn 
  • Interference by other females in the group or over-manipulation by humans
  • Sore udders 
  • Compromised neonate


Keeping the newborn and dam together in isolation can help in establishing the bond and can help to ensure that the newborn is receiving enough nutrition.



For newborn lambs, kids, calves, foals, and piglets, one of the most important management practices is to provide colostrum shortly after birth (ideally within 6 hours) as it contains protective immunoglobulins (a type of antibody) to help to fight infection. Without these immunoglobulins, newborns are susceptible to intestinal, respiratory, systemic (within the circulatory system), and other infections.

Another important consideration is the environment in which the newborn is housed. At birth, newborns go from a sterile uterine environment with no bacteria to an environment that could contain high-levels of bacteria and other pathogens from urine, manure, and other animals. This is why ensuring that the environment is as clean and dry as possible is so critical for a newborn; it will help to prevent infections and potential death from occurring!



Injuries in newborns often occur due to a difficult birthing process or after birth when the mother or another female could stand on, kick, or lie on the newborn. To prevent injuries, ensure care is taken during the birthing process if applying an intervention, including the use of lubrication and not placing too much traction on the newborn. After birth, ensure that there is ample space for the animals to prevent accidental trauma to the newborn. This may include ample housing space or space from other animals and people.


Take Home Message

ALL newborns require excellent management and careful supervision to identify and address potential problems as soon as possible!


  1. Mellor, D.J., and K.J. Stafford. 2004. Animal welfare implications of neonatal mortality and morbidity in farm animals. Vet J. 168:118-133. 
  2. Yerpes, M., P. Llonch, and X. Manteca. 2020. Factors associated with cumulative first-week mortality in broiler chicks. Animals. 10: 310.