As cold weather settles over the Midwest, keep in mind that you aren’t the only one who feels the chill—your calves do, too. You can protect yourself by wearing more layers and turning up the heat, but your calves can’t. It’s up to you to adapt their housing and feeding programs for winter conditions.
When temperatures drop, calves exposed to the cold are more susceptible to respiratory tract infections, and if they’re not fed adequately, they won’t grow as quickly because they’re using their energy to keep warm instead. Whether you keep calves in barns or hutches, follow these steps to help ensure their comfort and health.
• Check the feeding temperature of your milk and colostrum. Milk cools quickly when exposed to colder environmental temperatures and poured into cold bottles or buckets. If you feed milk replacer, you may need to increase your mixing temperature to ensure the milk is warm enough when it reaches the last calf.
• Monitor wash water temperature. If you’re washing bottles or buckets in the sink, check your water temperature to make sure it is warmer than 120º. When the wash water cools, the fat and protein particles can come out of the solution and stick to the plastic, resulting in dirty equipment.
• Patch any holes in calf hutches and make sure they are not drafty. The job of the calf hutch is to keep the calf warm, dry and out of the elements. When intact, hutches 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 airflow, and the calf has little room to get out of the draft. This results in a higher risk of disease and a lower rate of gain for that animal.
• 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. Make sure curtains close properly and there are no openings that could create a draft.
• Provide adequate bedding. If you haven’t already obtained straw for bedding, find some now. Straw keeps the calf dry and provides insulation. 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.
• Ensure windbreaks are adequate. If you live in a part of the country where windbreaks are a necessity, you’ve likely already taken care of this. For those in other areas, think about how the wind travels through your farm and whether a windbreak would provide protection for your calves and heifers. 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.
• 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 where 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, washed and dried in a place where manure won’t be passed on to other calves coming through the system.
• Verify the feeding program. A calf’s maintenance requirement increases dramatically when the weather is cold. It uses energy to keep warm, leaving less energy for growth. To keep a calf growing and healthy when temperatures drop, it needs to consume more solids. There are several ways to achieve this: Feed more frequently, feed more volume each time 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.
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