Heat Lamps: The Good, Bad and Ugly

Posted on November 9, 2012 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
Long, cold winters are hard on everyone and it is always a constant struggle to keep vital areas of your dairy operation warm. One of these important pieces is baby calves. Many people rely on heat lamps to keep newborn calves from catching a chill once they are born. But, are heat lamps really a calf’s best friend?

The Good
“The most common time to use a heat lamp is immediately after the calf is born,” says Dr. Steve Hayes of Day 1 Technology. “The calf is still wet, but we want to pull the calf away from the cow without it getting chilled.”
The calf is often placed in a warming area or in a warming box with a heat lamp to keep it warm and facilitate drying during cold months. By providing this warm environment, we can pull the calf away from the cow quicker, reducing exposure to manure in the maternity pen. It can also prevent the calf from getting hypothermia.
The Bad and Ugly
While heat lamps serve a purpose on many Midwestern dairies, it is important to remember a few important tips when using them.
“Because heat dissipates quickly, it is important to have the heat lamp close – but not too close – to the calf to be most effective,” recommends Hayes. “Having the heat lamp too close can burn the calf.”
Flammable materials, including dry bedding, should be kept away from the heat lamp to prevent fires. Hanging a heat lamp can be tricky, so use something stable. A piece of twine or wire is not the best method to hang a heat lamp.
Another problem with using a heat lamp or a warming box is bacteria growth. This is often overlooked as the first goal is removing the calf from the bacteria in the calving pen as soon as possible.
“It is essentially summer in those types of environments,” Hayes says. “Even if the calf is in there for a short period of time, there are bacteria there all the time.”
That is why cleaning out these areas where heat lamps are on a regular basis is very important to using heat lamps successfully. The exposure to the large number of bacteria right after birth is dangerous to the calf’s health.
Getting By
“There are a lot of people in cold climates that get by without using heat lamps,” Hayes says.
Many alternative methods are available to keep calves warm, offers Hayes. To dry a calf, rub it vigorously with a towel after birth. Having adequate bedding, especially long-stemmed straw, provides insulation for the calf and allows the calf to nest in a hutch or pen.
Using heat lamps can be effective when raising calves during this winter season, but be sure to use them safely and investigate alternatives. Of course, keeping the calf healthy is the most important consideration.

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Starting Strong - Calf Care