It’s Still Winter – Ann Hoskins

Posted on February 26, 2013 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus calf products coordinator

This winter has thrown us many challenges: a lot of snow, rain, huge temperature swings, cold stretches, and on and on. It is easy to think with the recent warmer temperatures we are getting close to the end. Even so, I challenge you to stay the course with your winter protocols. The huge swings in temperatures and lots of moisture require more energy from the calf. The warm days, cool nights and lots of moisture in the air can prove to be a challenge for even the healthiest animal.

Temperature swings can be very difficult for young calves. Newborn calves are particularly vulnerable to temperature changes. The newborn calf has a thermo-neutral zone that falls between 55 and 77 degrees F. Within this range of temperatures, the animal is not required to dissipate or conserve heat to maintain body temperature. In contrast, when the ambient temperature drops below 55 degrees, newborn calves need to expend extra energy to maintain body temperature. If these increased energy requirements are not met, calves will lose body weight and have suppressed immune systems.

One way to increase dry matter intake from milk or milk replacer is to feed more of it. The 32-percent increase needed when temperatures drop to 20 degrees means feeding an 85-pound calf 2.5 quarts twice daily rather than the standard 2 quarts fed during the fall.

The second choice applies to those farms feeding milk replacer. Increase the amount of powder while keeping the liquid constant. Doing this delivers a higher energy intake at a constant 2 quarts per feeding. When using this system, be sure not exceed 15 percent solids in the milk.

A third option is to increase the energy density of the diet with supplemental fat. Supplemental fat products usually contain about 60 percent fat and 7 to 10 percent protein. They are added to milk or milk replacer at 0.25 pounds per calf per day to provide extra energy for maintenance and growth.

If you are already using one of these options plan to stay the course through the temperature swings. If you haven’t increased the plane of nutrition, it is not too late.  Your calves will still receive huge benefits going into spring.

Hutch management
Many hutches do not get washed in the winter months and, in some cases, can even be hard to move off the frozen ground. With the snow and ice melting, it is really important to get those hutches moved and cleaned. Washing the hutches between calves will help to break the disease cycle. After washing a hutch, disinfect it with an acid solution and let the hutch dry before using.

Once the hutch is moved off the pad, clean up the dirty bedding and leave the ground empty for a few days. Sun exposure is important for drying and disinfecting the area before a new calf is put in the clean hutch.

With spring comes the spring thaw and lots of moisture and mud. Providing clean, dry bedding is an easy choice for survival tips. Research has shown calves spend 73 to 81 percent of their time lying down in daylight hours and almost 100 percent at night, if not disturbed, making the resting surface and space crucial for performance. Calves require at least 28 to 32 square feet of resting space with a recommended bedding depth of 3 to 8 inches, depending on material, base, and weather conditions.

Long straw is still the best choice of bedding in cold weather, but with all the moisture, in the air using more absorbent bedding under the straw may keep you calves drier. Shavings or sawdust make for a good base layer under the straw. It is important to use the straw in the youngest calves, under 3 weeks, and then switch to a different bedding if needed.

Deciding on a bedding type for calves is very important for many reasons. Consider pathogen exposure, development of airborne bacteria, current outside temperature, cost and drying efficiency. Regardless of the bedding choice, make sure calves are kept dry and clean and have the ability to nest to protect themselves against low temperatures at night.

Dry feeds and water
Spring brings moisture, which is very hard on starters and growers. It causes the pellets to expand and become very soft, resulting in fines. It can also cause feed to build up on the edges of the pails and turn into bacterial traps.

To counter the wet days, only feed your calves to their daily intakes. Keep your starters fresh and shake the pails when you feed milk and/or water to prevent buildup of the feed.

Feeding water in the freezing temperatures is sometimes a challenge and other times impossible. Now that the outside temperature is warming, it is time to get water in front of the calves consistently.

Cold temperatures in the Midwest help to break the disease cycle. In order to keep ahead of the bugs, it is important to revisit all cleaning protocols:

  • Rinse the feeding equipment in lukewarm water (around 110 degrees) to remove any organic matter that may still remain. Avoid using water above 110 degrees to prevent milk protein from bonding or becoming baked on pails and mixing equipment.
  • Wash equipment thoroughly with soap and disinfectant in hot water (around 150 degrees).
  • Reach all surfaces with a brush. Replace brushes as they become curled and bent.
  • Rinse with an acid solution.
  • Allow equipment to dry completely before using it for your next feeding.

Respiratory disease is one of the leading causes of calf health problems.  If the sun is shining and the snow is melting, it is a good indication that your curtains need to be open. Each barn is different and needs to be managed for its own conditions, but if you notice stale air as you walk through the barns, you need to address the problem quickly. Fresh air will help to prevent respiratory disease in your calves and heifers.

Calf jackets
Many producers have become very accustomed to using calf jackets. Calf jackets are a great insulator for calves in the coldest temperatures. But when it comes to spring thaw, take a close look at which calves really need jackets. Once the temperatures start to exceed freezing, your older calves may not need their coats. If your calves are consistently consuming starter, you should start to remove the jackets.  On a warm, sunny day, the calves will begin to sweat underneath their coats, potentially leading to health issues in the calves. The best way to check is to reach underneath the jacket; if the calf feels damp, take off the jacket and make sure it has ample dry bedding for nesting.

Don’t forget as those calves get bigger their jackets need to grow with them.  Loosen the buckles on the legs and the Velcro® under the neck for calf comfort.

When raising calves, it really comes down to having good habits as a calf raiser and taking care of the basic needs of calves. Providing the essentials – nutrients for growth and performance, good bedding, water, and proper sanitation – will allow your calves to excel.

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