Caring for Calves in Cold Weather

Are you doing all you can to keep calves healthy and growing?

Winter came in all of a sudden this year – in early December, we had some seriously cold nights followed by a damp southeast breeze that seemed to blow for ten days straight.  During our mild fall, I think most people had a good opportunity to prepare for the cold weather, but it never hurts to take a few minutes to think critically about how we’re caring for our calves in cold weather.  Spring is still a long way away!

Care At Birth

Is the calving area clean? Is there ample bedding to keep the calving area clean and dry while the calf is with the dam? If you’re putting calves in an empty trough or tub to let the cow lick the calf, are you able to clean this effectively between calves? Is the calving area cleaned between births?

When is the last time you’ve replaced your dip cup for navels? Many farms find it useful to purchase plastic or paper drinking cups and use one per calf.

Is there ample colostrum or replacer on hand to ensure each calf is getting a gallon within an hour of birth?

Is the colostrum able to be kept at least at 102 degrees by the time the calf consumes it?

Are there ample clean and dry cloths to dry the calf off before being put in her hutch or other calf facility? If not drying via cloths, is there access to a clean warming crate or hot box to dry her coat completely?

Are calf jackets clean and dry? Is there an ample supply to keep up with calvings? Is she getting her jacket put on over a dry hair coat?

Care in the Calf Facility or Hutch

What’s your bedding nesting score (NS)?

  • A NS 3 is ideal, in that calves are able to nest within bedding and the entire leg is covered while laying down.  This is not achievable with just shavings or sawdust.
  • A NS 2 may also be ok as long as calf jackets are being used. A NS 2 means just the lower part of the leg is covered.  This could mean less bedding or using sawdust or shavings plus a calf jacket.
  • A NS 1 means that when the calf is laying down, the entire leg and hoof is visible and no jacket is used. This is not advisable in winter temperatures, as the calf has to use more energy to keep warm.
  • When using sawdust or shavings, you will never achieve a NS 3. Adding a calf jacket and keeping bedding dry will allow a NS 2.

For every degree below the thermoneutral zone (for calves less than a month old, this is 50 degrees), the energy requirement of the calf increases one percent. At a minimum, most calves should be drinking two gallons of milk per day to properly combat cold.  Some producers prefer to add a third feeding to spread out the volume, while others add volume to both feedings.  My preference is to do three feedings to begin with, and also increase the volume during cold weather.

Take off your jacket and spend 20 minutes to a half hour in the newborn calf’s new hutch or calf facility. If you’re uncomfortable, she probably will be experiencing cold stress.  More bedding, removing drafts and adding calf jackets should all be considered.

Feeding water is a hassle in the winter, but offering warm water (over 100 degrees) immediately after feeding milk for an hour is still a viable option. Calves that are eating starter will increase starter intake with water present.  Young calves may also drink some warm water – we may not notice the amount as well use pails that are well over a gallon sized – but even if she only consumes a pint either end of the day, it will help keep her hydrated.

Starter should be offered free choice no matter the time of year to encourage intake. Newborn calves don’t need a full pail to start with – a couple handfuls to get them interested in the texture and taste will suffice, plus it’s easier to see if they’ve eaten any and it’s much easier to keep fresh without being wasteful.

What’s the air quality like? We don’t want drafts, but we definitely need calf facilities to be properly ventilated so the proper air exchanges can occur.  To determine if you’re getting enough fresh air into your facility, we can go through some simple math.  Numbers we need include barn dimensions, number of calves in the barn, and any fans.

Care from the Calf Team

Is your whole calf team on the same page with standard procedures during the cold weather? This includes relief feeders as well.  Calling a calf team meeting to go over the details ensures that everyone has a chance to ask questions or bring up concerns.

Does everyone know how to use the Calf Health Scoring Chart from University of Wisconsin? ( Is there a way to individually track calves between feeders so that everyone knows the health of each calf?

Are treatments documented in a set place where the appropriate personnel can access them easily?

Have SOP’s been developed with the herd veterinarian in the case of disease outbreaks? Have you discussed treatment protocols in conjunction with the Calf Health Scoring Chart?

Quick Checklist for Calf Area

  • Colostrum reserves – do you have enough? Are bags of colostrum replacer out of date?
  • Getting wet calves dry – can you build a hot box? Do you have enough terry cloth towels to help dry calves off before putting the calf jacket on?
  • Air – is ventilation up to par? Are there drafts?
  • Bedding – are calves clean and dry?
  • Calories – are calves getting enough energy through their milk to stay healthy and grow?
  • Calf Jackets – do you have enough? Do you have a way to wash them between calves?  Check them once a week to make sure they fit the calf properly
  • Spot check calf protocols – has something changed in your calf program since last winter?
  • Do all calf feeders know the protocols for winter?
  • Are you tracking incidence of respiratory disease and using the Calf Health Scoring Chart?
  • Have you discarded old/cracked/worn out calf feeding equipment?
  • Have you took the time to experience the calf’s environment as she feels it?