Prevent the pain of frostbite for calves

Posted on February 6, 2019 in Dairy Performance
By Dr. Jenn Rowntree
The words “polar vortex” probably make most of us cringe, especially given the recent bout of beyond-frigid weather.  While we’re hopeful that was a one-time event, experience tells us we probably haven’t seen the last of bitter cold temperatures for the year.

Some producers have likely already noticed frostbite’s effects on calves.  Unless it’s caught and treated early, the results are often permanent and detrimental.  Although prevention may not apply at this exact moment, I have a feeling we’ll see more extreme cold snaps somewhere in the future.  With limited treatment options, prevention of frostbite is the best strategy.


  • The maternity area should be clean and dry with deep straw bedding.  Provide a place for cows and calves that blocks the wind at the very least.
  • Newborn calves should be dried off as quickly as possible.
  • Pay attention to the most at-risk calves during feeding times and throughout the day.  This includes newborn (still wet or in the maternity area) and sick calves.
  • Are sick calves getting up and down regularly?  Movement of extremities can decrease risk for frostbite.  Make sure sick calves get the appropriate amount of warm fluids and energy from milk during the day to meet calorie needs for immune function and staying warm in addition to growth and maintenance.
  • Consider adding a third feeding of milk or warm water and electrolytes during the day.  This gets the calves moving with warm fluid in their bellies, and helps you detect sick calves faster.
  • Keep bedding dry.  Wet bedding becomes a dangerous risk factor with decreasing wind chill.
  • Some farms have found calf ear muffs to be a great help in protecting against frostbite.

Signs of frostbite
Frostbite most often affects calves’ ears, tails and hind feet.  It may sometimes affect the muzzle/nose.  Early frostbite is difficult to detect.  Look for cold and stiff extremities, including the ears and the hind feet above the hooves.  Affected tissue above the hind hooves can appear swollen and will be cold to the touch.  If frostbite goes unnoticed, the affected areas will become hard and skin/tissue can eventually fall off.

Treatment is limited if frostbite advances beyond the early stages.  Unfortunately, calves that endure severe frostbite of the hind feet will not recover and should be humanely euthanized by an authorized farm employee or veterinarian.

When you notice the early signs, get the calf to a warm room and heat the extremities as quickly as possible.  Use warm water and rub the affected area to stimulate circulation.  Most damage from frostbite occurs during the thawing process as ice crystals form and cause tissue damage.  A fast thaw will decrease this ice crystal time.  Once the calf is warm, it is essential to prevent re-freezing.  Keep calves indoors for a few days since the affected area is at increased risk for refeezing due to reduced circulation.

In addition to calves, keep an eye on all calf caretakers and other farm personnel during dangerously cold weather.  They are just as susceptible to frostbite as the calves.

About the author:  Dr. Jenn Rowntree is a Vita Plus calf and heifer specialist.  She grew up on her family’s 100-cow registered Holstein dairy farm in Baldwin, Wisconsin.  Rowntree studied dairy science during her undergraduate career as a Food Animal Veterinary Medical Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She went on to earn her doctor of veterinary medicine, with a focus on food animal medicine, at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.  She practiced veterinary medicine in southwest Wisconsin before joining the Vita Plus team in 2018.

Category: Animal health
Calf and heifer nutrition
Dairy Performance
Winter calf care