Vet offers advice for warming cold calves

Calves born in cold weather suffer adverse effects if they don’t get right up and nurse before they chill. “Calves start out with a high temperature of about 103 degrees right after birth. It starts to fall to about 101.5 to 102 degrees within a few hours,” says Robert Callan, Colorado State University veterinarian. “If it drops below 100, this means the calf is unable to thermo-regulate to keep him warm.” If calves are born in cold weather or wind, their temperature drops faster.

“High-risk calves also chill quickly. These include calves that suffered a prolonged birth or any dystocia, twins, and calves born to sick cows or cows with poor body condition,” says Callan. “Cows deficient in energy and protein may give birth to weak calves that don’t have energy reserves, and their colostrum has less energy and fewer antibodies.”

“If it’s cold, wet or windy, calves may chill before they can nurse,” he says. The calf’s mouth gets cold, and he can’t suckle. Without colostrum he doesn’t have energy to keep warm, and it’s a downhill spiral.

“First and foremost, calves need milk for energy to produce their own heat. Provide milk by bottle or tube if the calf can’t nurse the cow,” says Callan, “Whether it’s colostrum from the cow, warm milk replacer or homogenized milk, feed at least a quart.”

Recheck a chilled calf’s temperature every few hours to make sure body temperature is rising. “The energy provided by one feeding of colostrum may be used up in four to six hours, and the calf will need more.”

Key Points

• High-risk calves chill quickly during wintertime.

• Any calf with a temperature below 100 degrees needs immediate warming.

• Warm air or warm water can be used for warming a cold calf.

Ways to warm

The second step is to warm the calf externally. “Some people like to use a warm water bath because this warms the calf’s extremities and body surface because you must also get the calf completely dry afterward. If a calf’s ears, tail or feet are starting to freeze, however, this is the quickest way to thaw them. Applying a warm, wet cloth to stiff ears and tail — or even dunking the tail into a container of warm water — can quickly thaw them.

“What I like best, since it’s easier, is to use a warming box,” says Callan. You’ll need electricity. A small ceramic heater in a small, enclosed box where you can regulate temperature works well. “It not only warms the cold extremities and body surface, but the calf is also breathing warm air into the lungs, which helps raise his core temperature. All his blood is going through the lungs.”

If you find a calf out in the pasture, far from the house or barn, the quickest way to warm him may be on the floor of your pickup with the heater running. A warming box can also be attached to the front of a four-wheeler. A 12-volt heater with warm air blowing on the calf can start warming the calf while it’s being hauled to the barn.

Smith Thomas writes from Salmon, Idaho.


PASS THE MILK: Robert Callan, Colorado State University veterinarian, says calves must receive milk for energy to produce their own heat.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.