Your Winter Calf Checklist

Leaves changing color and the brisk reminder of forgetting to grab a jacket before you walk out to the barn are reminders that winter is just around the corner. While we make adjustments for the colder weather in our homes, remember to make cold weather preparations for our calves. Keeping newborn calves healthy during colder months doesn’t have to be stressful if you follow a few helpful tips and reminders.

First, consider how the colder weather will affect the calves. Generally, they are comfortable between 50-75F degrees. In this range, calves experience no sort of stress and require no extra energy to meet their requirements. For those of us who live in Pennsylvania, keeping a calf in that range will be near impossible in the middle of January. Thus, as the weather dips below 50 degrees and calves start requiring more, we need to provide an energy-packed diet in order for them to build energy reserves and continue to grow. Calves that are not fed enough to meet their energy needs may fall short on weight gain and structural growth and be more susceptible to disease. To avoid this, encourage calves to consume enough milk or milk replacer and high-quality starter feed to meet their needs. Calf starter makes up 75% of their energy and protein in the first 12 weeks of life so the sooner calves start eating grain, the faster they will utilize the benefits of generating heat with the energy provided.

One way of encouragement is to make sure the milk is warmed to 105 degrees at every feeding. When the milk is not warmed correctly, the calf expends valuable energy trying to bring the milk to body temperature after ingestion. Another way to increase starter intake is to start small feedings at an early age. Offer handfuls of fresh, high quality grain within the first two-to-three days after birth. Be cautious not to offer too much, or you can end up wasting feed. Water consumption is also vital in improving feed intakes. Calf starter intake and water intake go hand in hand. While water helps establish rumen bacteria and absorbs nutrients, grain kick-starts the papillae development on the rumen walls. This allows more nutrient absorption and causes generation of heat which is used to keep the calf warm. Try warming the water slightly so that it is lukewarm and removing all slush or ice throughout the day to encourage drinking.

Try to remember that “less is more.” Do not push too much milk or feed on them all at once. Access to clean, fresh starter daily will be able to help provide the calf with more of its nutrient needs than milk or milk replacer can alone. Before adding an extra feeding of milk or adding an add pack, try encouraging more starter consumption.

calfjacketsKeep the thermo-neutral zone of the calf in mind Here, housing plays an important role in maintaining that temperature range and energy requirements. It is crucial to house calves in an area that is free from drafts and moisture. This will not only help them maintain warmth but will also prevent respiratory disease such as pneumonia. Making sure a calf is completely dry before leaving the barn could be crucial to its future health. Maintaining clean, dry bedding is another way to prevent cold weather stress. A healthy calf can handle colder temperature as long as clean and dry bedding is provided and they are protected from the wind. A deep bedding of straw or similar material where calves can nestle down is perfect for preserving body heat.

How much bedding to provide? A rule of thumb is if calves’ legs are completely hidden when she is lying down, you have provided enough. If the weather gets really cold, a calf jacket can come in handy. This is particularly helpful on newborn calves when the temperature is below 60 degrees. Make sure the blanket fits snuggly and monitor the jacket for cleanliness. If it becomes dirty or soiled it can cause more harm than good by exposing the calf to pathogens or moisture.

Ventilation is essential when rearing young calves, especially in winter. Whether you have hutches, greenhouses, barns or group housing, proper ventilation must be maintained. While we want to keep calves away from drafts, it is still important to maintain air movement. Air flow removes moisture and ammonia build-up which cause respiratory problems. It also prevents contamination of air borne pathogens from sick calves to healthy calves by moving the air from the inside out. Fresh air year round is critical to keeping calves healthy.

In essence, the goals with raising calves should be the same year round-growing healthy vigorous calves. There are certain times where protocols and management procedures just need some tweaking to add that extra energy calves need during the colder months. Along with these tools and early response to disease, your calves will overcome cold stress and develop into strong, healthy heifers that will impact your future productivity and profitability.