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10 winter care tips for better calf health

Anne Proctor for Progressive Dairyman Published on 21 November 2017
winter calves

Snow will soon blanket many areas of the country, and temperatures will dip below freezing if they haven’t already. Use these practical tips to make sure your calves are ready for the cold.

1. Check the feeding temperature of your milk and colostrum. Milk cools quickly when exposed to the colder environmental temperatures and poured into cold bottles or buckets. If you feed milk replacer, you may need to increase your mixing temperature in order to ensure the milk is warm enough when it reaches the last calf.

If you feed pasteurized milk, you may need to adjust your holding temperature. Have a system in place to warm colostrum as well; it cools quickly when collected in a cold pail and poured into a cold bottle.

2. Monitor washwater temperature. If you’re washing bottles or buckets in the sink, check your water temperature while you’re washing to make sure it is warmer than 120ºF. When the washwater cools, the fat and protein particles can come out of the solution and stick to the plastic, resulting in equipment coming out of the wash just as dirty as when it went in.

3. Patch the holes in the calf hutches. The job of the calf hutch is to keep the calf warm, dry and out of the elements. When hutches are intact, they do a great job at creating a draft-free environment for the calf. However, if there’s a hole in the hutch, it creates a pathway for air to flow across the hutch, thereby creating a draft on the calf.

A calf in a hutch has very little ability to get out of the draft. This results in a higher risk of disease and a lower rate of gain for that animal. If it’s not possible to replace hutches that have been damaged, patch them to prevent air flow over the calf.

4. Check the ventilation system. In calf barns, proper air exchange is critical for calf health. Make sure your fans are clean and functioning properly. Check your positive-pressure tubes for damage, and repair or replace if necessary. Check to be sure curtains close properly and there are no openings that could create a draft.

Check windows, doors or inlets that may have been kept open for the summer to be sure they can be adjusted when the temperatures drop.

5. Source your bedding. If you haven’t already obtained straw for bedding, find some now. Straw keeps the calf dry and provides insulation to protect it from cold air. Straw should be deep enough that the calf’s legs are covered when it lies down. Beds must be dry.

You should be able to kneel on the pack without your pants getting wet. If your knees are wet, the calf is wet. When the calf’s coat is wet or dirty, the hair loses its insulating value, and the calf loses more heat to the environment. For example, imagine the difference in your comfort between going outside in a dry coat or going outside in a wet coat.

6. Find the calf jackets. That extra layer of insulation protects the calf from the elements and allows it to use more of its energy for growth. A newborn calf’s thermoneutral zone is about 68ºF, which means it starts to experience cold stress when temperatures drop below that.

A good rule of thumb is to put calf jackets on newborn calves when temperatures are under 60ºF and put jackets on the 1- to 2-week-old calves when temperatures are dropping into the 40s. Be sure calves are dry when the jacket goes on, and replace it with a clean one if it gets wet. Calf jackets should stay on until calves are about 30 days old.

7. Set the windbreaks. If you live in a part of the country where windbreaks are a necessity, you’ve already taken care of this. For those in other areas, think about how the wind travels through your farm and whether or not a windbreak would provide protection for your calves and heifers.

When you’re feeding calves, pay attention to how the wind travels over the hutches. Sometimes the wind comes between buildings and over a calf or heifer pen. A row of strategically placed big bales can have a dramatic effect on calf comfort, health and performance.

8. Review the plan for keeping newborns warm and dry. If you use a calf warming box, make sure it’s clean and in working order. If you use heat lamps, test the bulbs to see they are working and inspect the cords for damage. Stock the area in which calves are processed with calf jackets so employees can put them on as soon as the calf is dry.

Review how employees will care for a calf born in the muck. It will need to be warmed up and washed and dried in a place where manure won’t be passed on to other calves coming through the system.

9. Review your feeding program. A calf’s maintenance requirement increases dramatically when the weather gets cold. It uses energy to keep warm, leaving less available for growth. In order to keep a calf growing and healthy when temperatures drop, it needs to consume more solids.

There are several ways to get more solids into the calf: Feed more frequently, feed more volume per feeding, or increase the solids content. Talk with your calf nutritionist to develop a strategy for getting more milk solids into your calves. Calf starters also provide nutrients necessary for growth, so be sure each calf has fresh, palatable and high-quality starter available at all times.

10. Remember your employees. Just like the calves, people perform better when they are warm and dry. Remind your employees to find their winter gear. If you’re an employer who provides waterproof bibs, boots, gloves, etc., check with employees to see if anything needs to be replaced.

When employees are comfortable, they are more likely to spend an extra few minutes out in the elements to check a calf or refill a bucket. Catching a calf that needs some extra care one feeding sooner can save you money in treatment costs and lost growth.

Keep calves healthy and growing well this winter by making sure they are protected from the elements, well bedded and well fed. You’ll see the benefits when they calve in on time and are productive members of the milking herd.  end mark

Anne Proctor
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PHOTO: Keep calves warm, dry and out of the elements by patching any holes in the calf hutches. When hutches are intact, they do a great job at creating a draft-free environment for the calf. Photo by Jenna Hurty-Person.

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