Helping Calves Meet the Challenge of Cold Stress

As the snow starts to fly, farmers start putting on hats and gloves to complete their chores. However, it would be difficult to wrestle a calf into a hat, as it is hard enough to put them in a calf jacket! Luckily, there are other management tools farmers can use to help mitigate cold stress on their calves. These tools fall into two categories: management of the environment and the nutrition put in front of the calves.

Sun or snow, when I walk a calf facility, I always look at the calf ’s appearance first before looking at the management. Their body language gives me subtle clues on what is happening now and prior to my visit. During the cold I want to see a calf that is nested into a fluffy bed pack with bright eyes, no snot in the nose, ears perked up, and easy, quiet breathing. I also evaluate the color and consistency of their manure.

If the calf appearance does not match the description above, I start to investigate their environment and health status. I make sure that their body temperature is between 101.5 – 102 ºF, their bedding is not damp, they are not damp, and tent their skin to see if they are dehydrated.

Cold weather calf management

During cold weather it is a good management practice to dry the calves after birth and put them in calf jackets for the first three weeks of life. The ideal bedding is dry straw piled high enough that calves can form nests. The kneel test is the tried and true method to see if the bedding is dry enough to help calves maintain their body temperature.

Gauging if a calf is dehydrated is harder when the calves have their thicker fur coat. However, it is of major importance because it can get difficult to get water in front of the calves during colder temperatures. Make it a priority to put warm water in front of calves right after feeding milk replacer. When calves are already standing, they are more likely to at least put their nose into the water bucket. If you need to dump the water soon after chores are finished, add in another water feeding between milk replacer feedings to provide another opportunity for them to drink and for you to evaluate their condition. If you continue to see dehydrated calves, add feeding electrolytes to your management protocols during cold weather.

Winter nutrition

The first step in calf nutrition is to set the animal up for success with quality colostrum. Without quality colostrum, the potential exists that the absorption of immunoglobins that are important to the calf ’s immune system is delayed.

Next, it is important to ensure that the milk replacer used is meeting the needs of the calf. As a rule of thumb, a calf that is less than 3 weeks old has an increase in energy requirement as soon as the temperature falls below 60 ºF. Calves that are older than 6 weeks have higher energy requirements when the mercury dips below 42 ºF. There are a few changes to make to milk replacer management that help meet those increased energy requirements. The feeder can increase the quantity of solids in the milk replacer; however, do not exceed 15% as the goal is to be between 12-14%. During cold weather, farms can change the type of milk replacer that is fed by increasing the amount of fat in the milk replacer or by using a fat supplement that can be added to the milk replacer. Another management practice is to increase the number of feedings of milk replacer with a smaller total volume per feeding; however, it is a fine balance between feeding more milk replacer and overfeeding milk replacer, which could decrease the amount of calf starter consumed.

The nutrient content of the milk replacer is not the only factor to consider. When feeding milk replacer, check the temperature of the milk from the very first calf to the last calf fed. The goal is to feed milk replacer that is close to the calf ’s own body temperature, so they are not expending more energy to maintain their body temperature. If the milk replacer is cooling before the last calf is fed, evaluate the calf feeding practices. Is there a way to feed the milk replacer more quickly, can the milk replacer container be insulated to maintain the temperature, or should the groups of calves fed become smaller during the cold weather time?

Depending on your farm and management of your calves there are many ways to change your habits during cold weather. Evaluate your calves during cold weather and make changes based on what the calves are showing you. Consult with your nutritionist and veterinarian to optimize the health and development of your calves.