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0109 PD: Help dairy calves win the battle against cold weather

Published on 23 December 2008

Nothing quite stirs up an appetite like time outside on a cold winter day. And just as people need more energy when battling the cold, so do dairy calves.

That means extra effort is needed to meet their energy requirements and keep calves healthy throughout winter.

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Without proper winter care, including vaccinations and an increase in available feed, calves can fall victim to poor weight gain, disease and even death. But a well-managed calf can survive and thrive in cold temperatures.

Dr. Sam Leadley, a calf/heifer management consultant with Attica Veterinary Associates in Attica, New York, says sufficient nutrition is one of the most important aspects of winter calf management.

“Calves must consume enough feed to meet their maintenance needs and grow, and the amount of energy needed is temperature-dependent,” Leadley explains. “Once temperatures fall below 60°F, calves start burning extra energy to maintain their core body temperature. Producers must get enough feed in the calves to meet these maintenance needs.”

Research suggests that only 33 percent of dairy producers change calf-feeding practices in cool weather.

“A good rule of thumb is that if a sweatshirt is needed, a producer should start thinking about increasing calf rations. If the temperature drops to consistently below freezing, bump rations again,” Leadley advises. (See Table 1* for Leadley’s winter feed recommendations.)

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He says if producers only feed the minimum amount, they will struggle to keep calves healthy and there will be a surge in mortality – especially in fall- or winter-born calves. Leadley says winter housing also can make a big difference in a calf’s success.

A deep bed of long-stemmed straw allows calves to burrow in and preserve body heat. He adds that one way to determine proper bedding depth for cold weather is to look at the calf while it is lying down. If feet cannot be seen, Leadley says, the bedding is deep enough.

“Most everyone has good, draft-free housing for their calves, but wet bedding can cause problems,” he says. “Calves have much greater heat loss through wet bedding when compared with dry bedding. Producers must really watch weather conditions and add dry bedding as needed, not as determined by a schedule.”

In addition to nutrition and proper housing, it is important to prevent and treat disease to keep calves thriving.

“Cold weather is stressful for calves,” says Dr. Tom Van Dyke, manager, Veterinary Services, Merial. “That stress leaves calves vulnerable to a host of health problems, including Pasteurella pneumonia, one of the leading causes of bovine respiratory disease.”

The most important diseases to vaccinate against include infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, bovine viral diarrhea, parainfluenza-3 and bovine respiratory syncytial virus.

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Many herds also will benefit from using a coccidiostat and a vaccine to help prevent Pasteurella pneumonia in calves. Dr. Van Dyke says producers should watch their calves very carefully for the first sign of respiratory disease.

“The disease can progress quickly, and treatment must be done early to be successful,” he says. “Waiting too long can lead to irreversible lung damage and chronic, or dead, calves.”

Dr. Van Dyke suggests the following guidelines for calf pneumonia prevention:
• Provide well-ventilated facilities
• Keep calves dry and well-bedded
• Feed enough milk
• Avoid nose-to-nose contact
• Keep age groups separated
• Vaccinate dams
• Minimize weaning stress

Dr. Van Dyke also notes that calves should be given a coccidiostat labeled for prevention and treatment of coccidiosis. If not treated 12 to 21 days after infection, coccidiosis causes dramatic clinical signs, such as diarrhea, inability to absorb nutrients, depression, weight loss, secondary infections and sometimes even death.

Dr. Van Dyke says that once clinical signs appear, much of the damage has already been done and a preventive strategy is best with coccidiosis. He adds that a calf’s long-term success can be determined by the first few months of its life. Therefore, it is essential that it gets off to a good start.

“If a calf gets sick, it can affect its productivity for the rest of its life,” Dr. Van Dyke says. “Producers need to ensure the calves are prepared to battle the cold winter months to help avoid long-term damage from diseases like pneumonia and coccidiosis." PD

References and tables omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from Merial VPS SHARE newsletter, October 2008

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