Caffeine Intervention: Help for Your Calves, Too!

Sheila McGuirk, D.V.M. and Nathan Upah, M.S.

“Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my morning joe!”.  “Black, no I don’t need room for cream!”  These are proclamations we’ve all likely made even before a “Good morning” or “I love you”.  Make no mistake, we are a coffee culture.  Words like Starbucks, Caribou, Dunkin’, and Keurig give life to days that seemingly couldn’t happened without them.  Even Mountain Dew and Coca-Cola can occupy a coaster at your favorite breakfast dive.  Why?  Potentially due to a lack of phone booths, becoming a “super” person capable of conquering the day can’t happen any other way than with warm (or iced) liquid stimulation.


What if the same fuel that powered you through meetings, long drives, and allowed you to avoid post lunch siestas could do something more?  What if that magical stuff had a very powerful, but hidden gift; what if it could save lives?  Let’s rewind the clock back to the 15th century, when coffee gained wide popularity as a rejuvenating drink.  However, some 400 years would need to pass before we figured out why. At that time a young physician named Friedlieb Runge successfully extracted pure caffeine from Arabian beans.  Despite caffeine’s ability to stimulate, advancements in this field haven’t come rapidly. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that caffeine gained traction in the human medical community, specifically in neonatal medicine.

Apnea is a disorder where the afflicted stop breathing for periods as brief as 20 seconds to multiple minutes. Apnea is a condition commonly associated with sleep but is also commonly observed in premature infants.  Apnea can have a detrimental effect on the heart and cardiovascular system, as well as the associated hypoxia that can damage tissues and lead to long lasting side effects as a result of the disorder.  In 1977, a ground-breaking paper was published demonstrating that episodes of apnea in premature infants could be markedly reduced (85%) by caffeine supplementation (Aranda J.V).  The concept of caffeine eliciting a respirogenic effect gained momentum and continues to be utilized in medicine today, even referred to by some as a “Silver Bullet” in the field of neonatal medicine.


We understand much more about why and how caffeine works on the body today than we did in the 15th century or even in the 1970’s.  Caffeine works to stimulate the clearing receptor of a compound called adenosine. Adenosine is present in the brain; inflammation causes adenosine levels to rise.  When adenosine levels are elevated, the respiratory system is depressed, muscle contraction is hindered, and this 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.

Silver bullets.  How many times have we stood over a weak, lethargic calf, our arms heavy with lactic acid and ready to cramp, steam rising off our head and neck, simply exhausted from having to pull a monstrosity of a bull calf out of a heifer? How often have we prayed for a silver bullet to get this calf up and get him to nurse because we don’t have the strength to hold him up and he doesn’t have the strength to suckle?  His head is swollen, his tongue won’t fit in his mouth, and to top it off that cold front is here and the wind is howling and the snow is starting to fly.  Calves that have severe swelling can take days for the edema to reside, he needs colostrum, a miracle, and both of them right now.  This calf is more common than we realize.

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. 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, as expected, mature cows were less than 3%.  The staggering finding was the 30% of dystocia calves will die as a result of dystocia, or from associated complications.  When we start to apply numbers based on US herd sizes to these rates the number of affected calves can creep to over a million with economic losses greater yet.  How many lives could be sparred if we had the appropriate intervention available.

What follows are 3 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

Now what? You have a calf that fits one of the criteria above and want to give them a boost. Where do you turn? Only products specifically designed for calves should be considered. One such product is Calf Perk from TechMix ( Calf Perk, is designed and formulated to absorb when applied across the tongue. This way, even if the calf is non-responsive the active ingredients can still be absorbed and effectively help. Check with your animal health supplier or ask your veterinarian. But having a product like this on hand is the best way to prevent a potential loss.

We tend to think of that morning cup of coffee as our salvation, necessary to power us up to take on the day.  Now we can think about it as a way to stoak the fire of life and preserve the most precious gift we are given.  In livestock production silver bullets are few and far between, but when interventions offer the potential to provide the ultimate return on investment it should perk our attention.