Calf care checklist: 5 tips for winter management

Posted on January 24, 2023 in
By Bethany Dado-Senn, Ph.D., dairy calf and heifer specialist
Of all the animals on your dairy farm, calves are the most susceptible to cold stress and require the most attention when facing winter weather. Fortunately, the following tools can help you efficiently and strategically keep calves warm throughout the winter months.

1. Boost calf nutrient intake.
Calves need more energy in the winter to maintain core body temperature. Milk is the best place to start for preweaned calves. Options include:

  1. Increasing the number of feedings from two to three times per day
  2. Increasing the volume of milk fed at each feeding by 25% to 50%
  3. Add a milk fortifier or supplemental fat source

Other feeding strategies include keeping milk warm (105 to 110 degrees F) throughout the feeding process, ensuring adequate starter concentrate availability, and providing fresh, warm water after the milk feeding to encourage starter intake.

2. Give calves a warm start in maternity.
Newborn calves are particularly vulnerable to cold as they make the transition from a consistently warm womb to a frosty outside world. After birth, a wet newborn benefits from thorough drying either via towels or an air dryer to stimulate blood circulation and warm up the body. Warming areas and calf blankets are other common tools used in many maternity areas to promote newborn comfort – just make sure to keep these tools clean! Finally, a solid colostrum program is helpful in every aspect of calf-raising, including winter management. Colostrum’s high fat content, elevated immunoglobulins, and warm temperature all help keep calves warm and healthy in the first days of life.

3. Provide clean and ample straw bedding.
Straw bedding is a simple, effective and economical tool to provide calves with a warm microenvironment for nesting. Calf limbs should not be visible when the animal is lying down. Bedding should be clean and dry to maximize insulative capacity and prevent pathogen development. A simple way to test this is to kneel in a patch of bedding for 30 seconds. If your knees are dirty or wet upon standing, it’s time to add or replace bedding.

4. Don’t forget about ventilation.
When calves are housed indoors, it can be tempting to button up the building in the winter. However, maintaining proper ventilation to avoid respiratory issues is as important as warmth in the winter months. Monitoring your stocking densities and working with Vita Plus staff to complete ventilation audits are two key options if you are concerned about winter ventilation.

5. Develop winter weather protocols.
“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Work with your calf team before winter storms hit to give everyone the best chance to respond. Some important areas to discuss include who will be responsible for prepping calf panels and bedding before, during, and after winter weather, how to monitor cold calf behaviors like shivering or bunching, how to avoid frostbite on calves’ ears or legs, and who is responsible for putting on and taking off calf jackets.

Adding these tools to your calf care toolkit can keep calves comfortable and productive through even the toughest bouts of cold weather. Work with your Vita Plus team to develop a winter plan that works for you. Warm wishes and stay safe this winter season!

Category: Animal health
Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care
Winter calf care