Contusion-type cervical spinal cord injury (SCI) is one of the most common forms of SCI observed in patients. In particular, injuries targeting the C3-C5 region affect the pool of phrenic motor neurons (PhMNs) that innervates the diaphragm, resulting in significant and often chronic respiratory dysfunction. Using a previously described rat model of unilateral midcervical C4 contusion with the Infinite Horizon Impactor, we have characterized the early time course of PhMN degeneration and consequent respiratory deficits following injury, as this knowledge is important for designing relevant treatment strategies targeting protection and plasticity of PhMN circuitry. PhMN loss (48% of the ipsilateral pool) occurred almost entirely during the first 24 h post-injury, resulting in persistent phrenic nerve axonal degeneration and denervation at the diaphragm neuromuscular junction (NMJ). Reduced diaphragm compound muscle action potential amplitudes following phrenic nerve stimulation were observed as early as the first day post-injury (30% of pre-injury maximum amplitude), with slow functional improvement over time that was associated with partial reinnervation at the diaphragm NMJ. Consistent with ipsilateral diaphragmatic compromise, the injury resulted in rapid, yet only transient, changes in overall ventilatory parameters measured via whole-body plethysmography, including increased respiratory rate, decreased tidal volume, and decreased peak inspiratory flow. Despite significant ipsilateral PhMN loss, the respiratory system has the capacity to quickly compensate for partially impaired hemidiaphragm function, suggesting that C4 hemicontusion in rats is a model of SCI that manifests subacute respiratory abnormalities. Collectively, these findings demonstrate significant and persistent diaphragm compromise in a clinically relevant model of midcervical contusion SCI; however, the therapeutic window for PhMN protection is restricted to early time points post-injury. On the contrary, preventing loss of innervation by PhMNs and/or inducing plasticity in spared PhMN axons at the diaphragm NMJ are relevant long-term targets.