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Dairy calves need proper feed and winter housing

Whether in a straw house or plastic hutch, keep them clean, keep them fed

Newborn dairy calves need proper clean and dry shelters and proper feed to get them off to the best start.

Whenever I see dairy calves raised outside in the winter, it often reminds me of a producer I met several years ago. At the time, he told me that years before, he raised pre-weaned dairy calves in the most dismal ways.

He used to house about 15 outside in several lean-tos, which were a sheet of old plywood covering an enclosure of paige wire. He freely admitted that he was so cheap that on a few occasions, he bedded calves with ice-encrusted straw taken from rained-on round bales. Then he fed each calf twice-a-day a bucket of whole milk (no extra water) and calf starter misered out at ¼ – ½ lb. per head, no matter how large the calf. He said that as a result, on any given winter day all the calves were gaunt, frequently had scours and were covered with ringworm.

On one cold winter night at -28 C, five baby calves froze to death. From that day forward, he replaced all the lean-tos with straw-bale house, which group-housed all baby calves. He then implemented a significantly improved baby calf feeding program.

Near a row of trees, he constructed a wooden frame using pine lumber and lined it with straw bales (with a straw roof). The floor still had some snow on it, but clean and dry straw was put down so calves could make nests. The producer then implemented a third pail feeding of whole milk for all the calves with the larger calves getting a litre more. He also provided a textured calf starter on a free-choice basis, fed on a home-made belt feeder. By the time, the snow disappeared, he said: no more calves died, their ringworm/sores/scours faded and their weight gains visibly rebounded.

Proper feed and housing

I must admit that the story of the straw house was impressive, but its also a good testimonial that a good milk-feeding program is still crucial, especially in winter when the amount of whole milk/milk replacer needs to be increased to provide enough dietary energy to help baby calves stay warm and keep growing as winter temperatures fall.

I generally recommend that for pre-weaned dairy calves less than three weeks of age, to increase the amount of whole milk or milk replacer (20 per cent protein/20 per cent fat, reconstituted at 125-130 grams/litre of solution) by two per cent for every degree C that the outside temperature (including windchill) falls below 20 C for dairy calves from birth — three weeks of age and for calves older than three weeks old, it’s 10 C.

Many producers have told me they frequently have difficulty getting these extra amounts of milk/milk replacer into baby calves, even if they provide a third feeding. That’s because some calves simply don’t have the gut capacity for more milk or simply are not hungry. Some producers have also found mixing milk replacer at higher concentrations (re: 150-160 g/litre solution) cause nutritional white scours.

The good news is the cold can stimulate calf starter (energy) intake, even when two-week old calves just nibble at it. This initiation helps. And by the time they are a couple of weeks older, they will likely be eating up to 500-600 grams per day, which doubles by weaning time. Take note — the key to feeding high quality textured calf starter is making sure it is fresh and low in molasses (less than two per cent) in order to avoid it being fed in chunks.

On the non-nutritional side, it also warrants that calves be fed in a comfortable environment. This means the more common plastic hutches (rather than straw houses) should be in good condition to house calves and placed facing a southern exposure for more sunlight and less crosswind. Next, more clean and dry straw bedding should be provided as insulation — sufficient so the calves’ feet cannot be seen when they stand up. Afterwards throughout the winter, dairy calf hutches or shelters should be cleaned, with dirty and wet straw be removed and replaced.

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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