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4 tips to jump-start your winter calf feeding program

Tom Earleywine for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 September 2017
calf with calf jacket

We might not want to admit it, but winter will be here before we know it. And for most of the country, this means plunging temperatures, bringing cold stress and increased maintenance needs for young calves.

Help your calves beat the winter blues with these four winter feeding tips.



1. Increase nutrition levels

The biggest challenge calves face in winter is getting enough nutrition to maintain normal growth rates.

Calves spend more energy staying warm in winter. As such, maintenance needs increase tremendously. Increasing nutrition levels will ensure calves receive enough total energy to maintain body condition and continue growing.

I recommend feeding a full potential diet of at least 2.5 pounds of milk solids from 8-10 quarts of milk or milk replacer per calf per day year-round to help calves prepare for winter weather. If calves are growing better through the summer and fall, they’ll be better equipped to handle challenges in winter.

Adding a third feeding is an easy way to increase nutrition when temperatures drop. If you’re already feeding three times a day, increase the volume at each feeding. It’s important to remember you can’t just add water to increase the volume. Keep the solids concentration the same and bump up the total volume of solution.

2. Transition to a seasonal milk replacer

Calves have different energy requirements in summer and winter, so it makes sense to have different milk replacers for each season. Feeding a winter-specific milk replacer will help calves handle cold stress, maintain body condition and meet increased energy needs.


Many people believe adding a fat pack is the answer to improving growth rates in winter. Not true. In fact, increasing fat in milk replacers to more than 20 percent can decrease growth and hinder starter intake. Also remember, fat packs make the diet unbalanced.

Total energy is the most important factor to consider when choosing a seasonal milk replacer. To maximize energy levels, look for a milk replacer with 20 percent fat and at least 26 percent protein.

Milk replacers should be balanced for fatty acids with high levels of medium-chain triglycerides, omega-3 fatty acids and should contain L-carnitine. This helps calves break down and utilize fat as well as improve starter intake.

winter calf feeding

3. Keep starter fresh

Starter intake increases as much as 200 percent in wintertime, so it’s important to monitor intake closely. It’s a balancing act of providing enough starter to prevent empty buckets and keeping starter fresh by not overfeeding.

To keep starter fresh, feed smaller amounts more frequently throughout the day. Also look for a starter low in molasses. Molasses is poorly digested by calves and can cause the starter to freeze and turn into chunks, which isn’t palatable for calves and decreases intake.


4. Avoid frozen buckets

Water is equally as important in cold temperatures as it is in summer heat. Dry winter air can dehydrate calves. Providing an adequate water supply helps keep calves hydrated and supports growth by boosting starter intake.

Offer water to calves immediately after each milk feeding and let them drink as much as they want. Make sure the water is 100ºF to 105ºF to avoid lowering calves’ body temperature. To avoid annoying frozen buckets, remove excess water from the buckets after feeding.

While it’s best to feed milk three times a day, we know it’s not feasible for everyone. For those feeding milk or milk replacer two times a day, adding a third water feeding midday can make a world of difference by boosting starter intake.

Don’t let dropping temperatures freeze calf growth and performance on your farm. Work with your local calf and heifer specialist to start planning your winter calf nutrition program today.  end mark

Tom Earleywine
  • Tom Earleywine

  • Director of Nutritional Services
  • Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products
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PHOTO: Staff photo.