Ask the Expert: Spring – A Change of the Seasons – Dr. Jeff Acker, Veterinary Services of Wisconsin, LLC

Posted on April 10, 2013 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Jeff Acker, Veterinary Services of Wisconsin, LLC

Q: As we switch from winter to summer protocols, what should be our top priorities for getting calves ready for a new season?

A:  Spring is the season of the most dramatic climate changes of the year.  This past winter was rather long, but also stable – not too cold and not too warm.  So when do we need to make the transition from winter protocols to summer protocols when it comes to calf care?

The three most frequent questions are when do we stop using the calf warmers, when do we start taking off calf blankets and when do return to the summer feeding protocols?

To answer these questions, we need understand the newborn calf and its needs.

Let’s talk briefly about the new environment.  As we all know, April temperatures vary greatly depending on where we live.  While it is relatively warmer for us, we need to remember it can still be cold for a newborn calf.  At the beginning of April, the average daily temperature is still only in the 30s.

The calf has just left the controlled environment of the uterus and is now exposed to the real world.  The thermal neutral zone (TNZ), the temperature at which an animal is not expending energy for heating or cooling, is 59 to 77o F for calves when they are clean and dry.  With that being said, a clean, dry calf can tolerate a relatively wide temperature range and still be comfortable.

Now that we have a few facts, let’s answer the questions.

Calf warmers are okay, but can probably be the first winter items to be turned off in my opinion.   After the long winter, I am more concerned about accumulation of pathogens in the warming pen/hut that are detrimental to the calf.  The calf should be fine as long as it is thoroughly dried, given a blanket and put in deep straw bedding.

Calf blankets are still very important at this time of year, especially for calves up to three weeks of age.  We will have some warmer days when we think we don’t need the jackets, but remember the TNZ.  I still make my kids put on a coat or fleece when they go outside so they don’t catch a cold.  The sun is warm, but the air can still be cool and damp.

When the mercury remains below 32o F for the daytime high, it is recommended to increase the plane of nutrition because the calf needs more energy to stay warm as well as grow.  This recommendation holds true for calves that are fed by the bottle, pail or automated calf feeder.  Once the weather has warmed, the calves can then be transitioned to the summer protocol.

Please remember to transition the calves to the new feeding protocol.  Transitioning applies to all animals, whether we are talking about opening a new bag or bunker for the milking cows or feeding the calves.  Consistency is very important and calves do not like drastic change.  During the winter when it is cold, we frequently mix the milk replacer warmer since it will otherwise be cold by the time it is offered to the calf.  Be sure to monitor the temperature of the milk replacer so it is neither too warm nor too cold.  Also remember to regularly agitate the milk/replacer so the feeding is consistent from the first calf fed to the last calf fed.  This is very important from both nutrition and gut health standpoints.

Spring is here, finally!  This is the season of changes.  Remember, the sun is warm but the air is cool and damp.  Keep the calves dry and transition the feedings from winter levels to summer levels.  If you have any questions regarding your current protocols, please consult with your veterinarian.

Meet Dr. Acker: Dr. Jeff Acker is the owner of Veterinary Services of Wisconsin, LLC.  Based in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Dr. Acker practices primarily in northeast Dane County.  He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine in 2001 and has been practicing food animal medicine ever since.

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Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care