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Tips on warming chilled calves

Proper management will help prevent it from happening, 
but when it does happen chilled calves need immediate attention

Calves that are severely chilled at birth, without immediate assistance to warm and dry them and make sure they ingest colostrum in a timely manner, have poor survival rates. If a calf gets too cold before it suckles, it may not be able to get the teat in his mouth, and does not obtain crucial energy or antibodies it needs. Its ability to absorb antibodies from colostrum also diminishes as it becomes colder.

PREVENTING COLD STRESS

Dr. Charles Stoltenow, associate professor and Extension Livestock Program director, North Dakota State University, says producers need to be prepared for cold weather and minimize cold stress.

“The No. 1 thing we talk about with producers is the effects of wind and wet on calves,” says Stoltenow. “If it’s severely cold we usually don’t have wet conditions.” Dry cold is not as hard on baby calves as being wet.

“Make sure the cow is on an increasing plane of nutrition in late pregnancy, for optimum milk production. Producers need to provide enough windbreaks in the calving area, and good drainage, so there are no puddles. Often calves get hypothermia due to the freeze/thaw cycle. Get calves up off the cold, frozen ground.”

If there’s no old grass, they need bedding. Stoltenow says bedding with straw or old hay will help keep calves warm and it’s often better to sacrifice old hay to keep calves warm, rather than thinking it’s needed to feed cows. “Think preventatively,” he says. “After calves have suffered frostbite, it’s too late. After they’ve been in the rain for three days, it’s too late.”

The main goal is to provide cattle with a clean, dry area to calve. “I am not a big fan of vaccinating the cow to prevent calf scours,” says Stoltenow. “For some producers it may mean they can still allow the calf to come into contact with a contaminated environment. They are not dealing with the main issue. In the battle against cold stress and disease, prevention is important, so you don’t have to skirmish in close quarters. You want to go into battle on your terms, with preventative management.”

BLOCK WIND

Providing proper windbreaks is important. Newborn calves dry quickly, and if they can get up and nurse before they get too chilled, they do fine. Newborn calves can withstand a lot of cold if they are dry and have a good milk supply.

If cows are calving on pasture with windbreaks, they manage fairly well. But if calving in an open drylot, cows may not have a lot of room, and should be provided both windbreaks and cover. Calves need to be up off frozen ground.

“I’m also not a big fan of calving barns,” says Stoltenow. “Congregating all these animals in what we call a pinch point in the system can be detrimental. And if it’s warm in the barn, it will be humid, possibly leading to pneumonia in young calves.

“If you get a pathogen in there like an E. coli, Salmonella, coronavirus or rotavirus, you are exposing all the calves to those. If you are using a calving barns, cleanliness is next to godliness,” he says.

Never leave calves in the barn more than 24 hours, and aim for it to be just long enough to be completely dry and nursing their mothers. Never put a sick animal in the calving barn. Always use a separate facility for the sick ones.

WARMING COLD CALVES

If there is the odd case when a calf does get chilled, there are many ways to warm up calves.

“Cold calves have been warmed in pickups, garages, bathtubs, and other facilities,” says Stoltenow. “You can warm a calf with warm water, but the caution here is to use warm water, not hot. Their cold skin is sensitive and you don’t want to burn them, or rub them too much if there’s been frostbite damage.”

Colostrum contains a lot of energy and helps the calf generate body heat. Even if a calf is cold and becoming lethargic, feeding it full colostrum will help it maintain body heat and provide energy to get up and nurse. The temperature of colostrum is about 101.5 degrees, and that in itself has a warming effect on the calf,” says Stoltenow. “All of those things add up to a resilient animal, if we just give him a chance.”

Dr. James England (University of Idaho, Caine Center) says the first option when finding a really cold newborn calf might be to put it on the floor of the pickup with the heater running, especially if it is a long way from the barn or an electricity source.

“The main thing is to get him dried off and warm up his feet and legs,” says England. “In many instances you don’t have hot water available to apply to cold limbs. I usually just stick with warm air and getting the calf dry. If its feet are cold you know the calf is chilled, and you have to get the whole body warm.”

Just breathing warm air, helps a calf to warm. Whether it be in an electrically heated warming box, or the pickup truck heater, “warming the lungs helps warm the body core, which is just as important as warming the extremities,” he says. England has seen some producers with a small heated warming box mounted on the front of the quad, to carry chilled calves until they can get them into a barn.

If calves are frozen, they can be gently rubbed with warm water, and if just chilled hot-water bottles wrapped in towels, electric banket or heating pad can also be used. Gently rub or massage the calf to stimulate circulation.

The key say experts is to get calves dry, up and moving, and good quality colostrum into them within the first two hours of life. †

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