Cold Is Coming; Got Your Calves Ready?

Once you start putting on extra layers of clothes, calves are already experiencing cold stress.

Published on: Oct 30, 2013

You may not be expecting the kind of blizzard that killed thousands of South Dakota beef cattle in October. Then again, those cattlemen weren't either.

But as Ed Denton, a New York based dairy calf and heifer specialist notes "If you're finding yourself putting on an extra layer of clothes, chances are your calves are already experiencing cold stress." That true for both beef and dairy calves. Some of Denton's suggestions may fit beef cattle, too.

Calves under 3 weeks of age can begin feeling cold stress much earlier than most people think. The Purina animal nutritionist notes, even at ambient temperatures of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and below, cold stress can hinder calf growth and performance. Cold stress can continue to affect calves over 3 weeks of age as ambient temperatures dip to 40 degrees and below. With the substantial value of beef and dairy calves, it behooves producers to keep calves growing and thriving despite the cold.

COLD WEATHER CALF COMFORTS: They make a huge difference in calf health plus growth and development.
COLD WEATHER CALF COMFORTS: They make a huge difference in calf health plus growth and development.

Use calf jackets
Calf jackets are a simple and effective tool to help dairy calves conserve heat. Denton recommends using them on newborn calves, and to continue using until they outgrow them. Calf raisers should review their sanitation practices of those jackets. It's important to properly wash them between uses.

Maintain deep, dry straw beds
Deep straw bedding helps calves nest and conserve heat. Pens and hutches should always be clean and dry. He advises doing the "knee test". If you put your knee down and it stays dry, the bedding is dry enough. If not, it's time to re-bed.

How much of the calf's legs are showing when its lying down is a gauge of whether the bedding is deep enough. If no legs are showing, that's optimal. If half of their legs are showing, that's acceptable. But when all of the legs are showing, it's time to add bedding. 

Offer weather-formulated nutrition
Feeding dairy calves a higher plane of nutrition is particularly important as temperatures begin to drop. Denton recommends feeding calves 2.5 pounds of calf milk replacer powder per day to ensure they're receiving enough energy.

A correct balance of fat and carbohydrates is key to achieving optimal energy intake. A common misconception is that increasing fat alone in the calf diet during colder weather will make up for a calf's increased energy demands.

A 100% increase in fat alone may only yield a 12% energy increase, he points out. But a 50% increase in calf milk replacer powder can yield a 50% increase in energy.

Don't limit the time calves are receiving nutrition, he stresses. A three-times-a-day feeding program (eight hour increments) allows for more balanced energy intake and availability.

Start introducing calf starter ad libitum to calves at 2 to 3 days of age and increase feeding rate as appetite increases. A starter formulated for cold weather can help support calf weight gains and structural growth in spite the cold.

Offer fresh, warm water
Calf raisers often underestimate the dehydration associated with lower relative humidity and dry air brought on by colder weather. That's why Denton recommends feeding calves warm water between 101 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

Water temperature becomes increasingly important in cold weather. Cold water forces calves to use extra energy to heat the water up to their body's core temperature.

Group for post-weaning
To help cut down on the added stress of weaning, he advises post-weaned calves should be grouped in small, even groups for up to three weeks post-weaning. To help promote intake during post-weaning, feed the same calf starter, all the way up to 12 weeks. Then they can be fed a grower feed as they transition to higher fiber diets.