It’s time to prepare for winter calf care

Posted on October 19, 2015 in Dairy Performance
By Augusta Hagen
A hard frost and cooler temperatures mean winter will be here before we know it.

The thermal-neutral zone for a calf under 3 weeks of age is 59 to 78 degrees F.  When temperatures dip below 59 degrees, the calf can start to experience cold stress and not grow as efficiently as possible. In October, the average temperature can hover around 50 degrees, which is why it is a good time to start preparing for winter calf care. As we all know, winter can be tough on calves, but simple management and feeding strategies can make the winter go more smoothly.

Facilities and newborn care
Focus on the maternity area as that is where the calf’s life begins. Clean, deep-bedded straw for the calf to nestle in after birth prevents loss of heat to the environment. The quicker we can get the newborn wet calves dried, the better. Use bath towels or beach towels to help dry the calf. But pay attention to how you’re drying it. Don’t dry the hair down, always fluff it up as this helps let out some of the extra moisture.

Some farms have created a warming box/space for the first 12 hours of life with supplemental heat to help them dry before going to their individual pens. Be cautious if using a warming box/space and make sure it is cleaned often.  A warm place like that is a great place for bacteria to thrive. Don’t forget to feed 4 quarts of quality colostrum as soon as possible.  Pay special attention to the feeding temperatures.  When thawing frozen colostrum, do not exceed a warming temperature of 120 degrees F.

As the calf moves into its clean and dry individual space, provide an adequate amount of bedding for the baby calf to nestle. Sometimes producers will put down wood shavings/sawdust before deep-bedding with straw to help with drainage.

Calf jackets also help calves combat heat loss, but make sure to put them on dry calves and not wet calves. A jacket on a wet calf can prevent the hair coat from drying fully and essentially locks in the moisture.

As the temperature decreases, the caloric demand increases, which means calves need more calories to meet maintenance requirements. Caloric intakes can be increased in several ways:

  • Boost milk feeding volume (typically by one-third)
  • Increase feeding frequency (three times-per-day feeding)
  • Add a supplemental fat source, such as Vita Plus Calf Energize

Don’t forget to check mixing and feeding temperatures. This is important year round, but especially important in the colder months due to the rapid heat loss from the milk or milk replacer before feeding it to the calf. Feeding temperatures should be around 100 to 105 degrees F. Feeding hotter milk can decrease intakes, so be sure to consider the amount of heat loss that takes place between mixing and preparing the milk and delivering it to the calves.

Encourage starter grain intake during the colder months by keeping it fresh and dry. Starter grain intake comes with a bonus:  it helps get the internal furnace (the rumen) working by activating microbial fermentation, which can help combat some amount of cold stress.

Remember, water intake is a crucial component of starter grain intake. Even though feeding water is not a fun job in the winter, it is extremely important. Warm water and starter consumption are positively correlated. The more starter grain the calf eats, the more water it will drink.

Keep the basics in mind during the winter.  Focus on cleanliness and consistency. Implementing one or more of these different management and feeding strategies during the winter will help your calves thrive.  Contact your Vita Plus consultant with any questions you may have about winter calf care.

About the author:  Augusta Hagen works as a Vita Plus dairy specialist in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.  She also provides technical leadership and training to consultants in the area and shares nutrition and management expertise through companywide projects.  She earned her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison through the Vita Plus Dairy Nutrition and Management Fellowship.  She earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science with an agribusiness emphasis at UW-Platteville.  While there, she gained consulting experience through the Vita Plus Dairy Technical Extended Internship.  Hagen is an alumna of the Sigma Alpha Professional Agricultural Sorority and currently serves on the planning committee for Cows on the Concourse in Madison, Wisconsin.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Dairy Performance
Facility design
Winter calf care