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Winter calf care

Contributed by Kathy Barrett Published on 22 December 2021
Blinda Thompson

Keeping calves warm in winter is good for calves and good for the farm. Calves that are not cold stressed are healthier and more productive throughout their lives.

If you think about the body condition of dairy calves, they don’t have a lot of fat on them. They’re pretty lean with only two to four percent body fat. This means they don’t have much in the way of energy reserves to use if they get cold. As temperature decreases, basic maintenance requirements for the calf increases. Calves need more nutrients just to stay warm. Nutrients for growth and health are available only after the maintenance requirements are met. If there is an energy deficit, they have less energy for their immune system which then limits their ability to fight disease and simply grow.



All in all, not a good scenario, but one that can be offset by management. Addressing changing nutrient requirements is crucial. The increase in nutrient requirements can sneak up on a farmer because young calves will feel the cold before we do. Calves less than three weeks of age need extra energy to keep warm when temperature is below 59°F. That may not feel all that cold to us, but it does to a calf. Calves older than three weeks need extra energy to keep warm when the temperature is below 42°F. Wind and wet conditions mean the calf must work even harder to stay warm, increasing the nutrient requirements further.


Feeding a greater volume of milk may be part of the answer but it’s important to look at the nutrient content of the milk to make sure you’re providing optimal energy intake. That requires balancing both fat and carbohydrates. This is where your nutritionist comes in. They can recommend the appropriate feeding rate whether it’s milk or milk replacer, based on your situation. More importantly they can adjust the milk replacer and starter feed composition to compensate for the cold weather as well. When possible, spread out the feedings to three times a day to facilitate nutrient availability more evenly throughout the day, which translates into less stress on the calf.


Cold, dry air can cause dehydration. The two most common findings on a youngstock necropsy are dehydration and undernutrition. This illustrates how important ample water is to calf health during the cold weather. Depending on the age of the calf, they should drink one to two gallons of water a day. Feed warm, not cold water. The calf will have to use energy to warm cold water up to their body temperature. Feeding water at 101 to 102°F is ideal, but if that isn’t doable shoot for at least 80°F as fed. This can be tough in the cold weather especially if calves are in hutches. Water can be heated to a higher temperature allowing for some cooling off by the time it gets to the calves. Of course, frozen water is the same as no water.


Calves and drafts don’t mix, especially young calves. Air movement over a dry calf, less than three weeks old, at a temperature under 50°F in excess of one MPH is considered a draft. If you can feel the draft, your calves can too. Calves will have to use energy to counteract the chilling effect a draft has on their body temperature — yet another challenge they don’t need. If calves are in hutches, keep them dry, well bedded, and opening south. If calves are moved from hutches to inside housing during the winter, be sure to monitor the ventilation. Providing good ventilation at a rate of four air exchanges per hour while avoiding drafts is critical to promote calf health. Adequate ventilation prevents the buildup of pathogens, ammonia, dust, and moisture in the air, all of which can compromise calf health and growth.


In the winter months straw bedding is the preferred material for calves. Straw insulates better than sawdust and other bedding choices. Calves can nestle down into the straw to keep warm. The University of Wisconsin has developed a nesting score that ranges from one to three that describes the amount of bedding needed to provide a calf a comfortable environment. During the cold weather they recommend a nesting score of three, which is where the calf’s legs are not visible when laying down.


Clean and dry is key no matter what bedding material is used. Cold and wet is a recipe for disaster for calves. A calf will have to use extra energy just to maintain body temperature in these conditions. Dirt and mud will increase the pathogen load at a time when the calf’s immune system is already challenged. Using disinfectant is effective but it works better after dirt and organic material has been removed. Follow the label for the disinfectant — their efficacy can be impacted by temperature, concentration used, pH of the water, water hardness, and presence of organic matter.


Calf jackets that are clean, dry, and well fitted are another way to keep calves warm and dry. If the calves are outside, a waterproof jacket is the way to go. Wash the jackets in between calves to reduce pathogen exposure.  end mark

PHOTO: Belinda Thompson, retired clinical professor in population medicine and diagnostic sciences (PMDS) at the Cornell University Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC), feeds a calf. Photo credit: Jason Kosk.

Kathy Barrett is a Dairy Education Specialist with Cornell PRO-DAIRY. Email Kathy Barrett.

This article appeared in PRO-DAIRY’s The Manager in November 2021. To learn more about Cornell CALS PRO-DAIRY program, visit PRO-DAIRY Cornell CALS.


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