Maintaining Heifer Performance in Cold Stress – Pat Hoffman, Vita Plus

Posted on December 22, 2014 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Pat Hoffman, Vita Plus dairy technical specialist
Winter issues of magazines and newsletters are stacking up and surely contain a number of articles in reference to feeding and managing dairy calves in winter.

All of those comments are important and true; dairy calves are very sensitive to cold conditions.  Changes in feeding and management are required to help calves not only survive, but also grow to their potential despite the temperature outside.

What we probably won’t read much about is the effects of winter weather on older heifers.

The effects of winter are more profound on calves, but that does not mean older heifers are immune to cold conditions.  Because older dairy heifers are frequently reared in a wide array of environmental conditions, it challenges our ability to universally define the exact energy requirements of a dairy heifer in the winter.  However, most heifers – regardless of age or size – will require more energy in the diet during winter. Calculating exactly how much extra dietary energy to keep heifers growing on pace in the winter is a little bit of science and a lot of experience and art.

So let’s start with a little science.

As a heifer grows, she gains body mass and rumen capacity.  As a result, she is more adept at handling cold.  But extraneous winter or housing conditions can have an additional effect on heifers’ maintenance energy needs.

For example, at the same winter temperature, a heifer lying on wet bedding requires more energy than a heifer lying on dry bedding.  Likewise, a heifer with a dirty hair coat has less insulation than a heifer with a clean, dry, long hair coat.

Do our heifers frequently stand or lie in the winter sun?  Do the cold winter night winds blow on them?  Are they walking on lumpy, icy, jagged walking surfaces or standing in a cold rain?  Can they get to water or has it become an ice sculpture?  All these winter conditions can occur and require more maintenance energy by the heifer.

What does this mean management-wise?

With younger lighter heifers (less than 600 pounds), we should provide a good environment and perfect resting areas before relying on feeding more energy to overcome winter conditions.  For these heifers, walk the pens and ask, “Do we need more feed energy or should we improve the bedding?”

For all heifers, walking pens, noting environmental conditions and proactively discussing those notes with your nutritionist can pay dividends.  The walkthrough checklist should include bodyweight, resting surfaces, coat conditions, crowding, lot conditions, walking surfaces, body condition, etc.

Generally, for dairy heifers, you should reduce dietary NDF 2 to 3 percentage units in the winter. For tougher winter conditions (wind, frozen or wet bedding, or frozen, uneven walking surfaces), reduce dietary NDF 3 to 4 percentage units, but always monitor heifer growth and body condition frequently.

Reducing dietary NDF in winter heifer diets accomplishes two things.  First, the diet will have more caloric density and, second, heifers will eat more feed.  In general, for every 2-percentage-unit reduction in dietary NDF, heifers will eat 1 pound more of dry matter.

Finally, remember winter to a heifer is where she lives, not where we live.

In freestall or other confinement barns, winter may end in March.  That’s because heifers are fully protected from precipitation, wind and internal barn temperatures may rise to above 50 degrees F.  Thus, don’t continue winter diets too long or over-conditioning may occur. Winter may end much later for heifers with outside exposure due to cold winds, icy rains and muddy lots.

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