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Managing Dairy Calves In Winter

It doesn’t take us long to grab our long johns when January arctic winds blows snow across the farmyard. Baby dairy calves housed outside might feel the same way, but they don’t have much a choice when it comes to what to wear to stay warm and comfortable. They can grow a thicker hair-coat, but otherwise, must largely rely upon us to provide adequate energy through good housing, a higher plane of nutrition and a preventative health care plan in order to survive a typical Canadian winter.

Since, dietary energy is the single large nutrient requirement for calves, it is important to remember this general rule during the cold winter months: for every drop of the thermometer by 1 F below 50 F (10 C), a calf requires one per cent more dietary energy (excluding other environmental factors such as windchill and wet weather). Therefore, dairy calves overwintered in outside hutches on a brisk winter day of -10 F (-23 C) require an astounding 60 per cent more dietary energy compared to similar dairy calves raised in a well-insulated and heated calf-barn.

Taking a brisk walk along a row of calf hutches will tell if calves are in a state of negative energy balance or not. Poor or rapid loss of body condition is an excellent visible indicator of inadequate housing conditions or poor dietary energy intake. One might also notice a few calves coughing or with nasal discharge or a group with dirty tails from bouts of diarrhea. These are familiar outcomes of poor energy status among dairy calves often affecting those younger than three weeks of age. Not only do they have an immature immune system to begin with compared to older calves, but cold stress challenges this vulnerable protection even further.

Since individual hutches are one of the most popular ways of raising calves outside, any properly laid out improvements that keep cold winter conditions from drawing energy away from their bodies (as well as wasting feed energy) will prevent a significant energy loss normally used for maintenance and growth requirements. For example, position a row of hutches so it’s not in the direct path of cold north-west winds, such as near a row of trees, fence or other suitable windbreaks like barns and other building. Individual hutches should also be positioned so cold drafts and snow are prevented from circulating around or even inside each hutch, and a few hours in direct sunlight does not hurt, either.

Removing soiled bedding and providing a good layer of fluffy straw effectively insulates calves from the cold and also acts as a moisture barrier to keep them dry. One winter guideline for bedding suggests enough clean straw should be provided, so you can’t see the animals’ feet when they stand up.

After providing a good winter place for the calves to live, they should be then provided with a nutritionally balanced diet that focuses upon supplying maximum energy intake to them. Normally, young pre-weaned calves must rely on a liquid milk-based diet until they are old enough to consume an appreciable amount of dry feed or high energy calf starter. Unadulterated whole milk (re: avoid waste milk) with at least a 3.5 per cent milk fat content should be provided at five to six litres per day to young calves. Producers who prefer to feed calf milk replacer should always purchase at a standard 20 per cent high-energy fat formula.

Since, reconstituted commercial milk replacer does not provide as much fat (a. k.a. energy) as 3.5 per cent whole milk, it is a reasonable suggestion to increase the amount of milk powder mixed with warm water from a standard 13 per cent solution (130 g per litre) to a 15 per cent solution (150 g per litre). Feed five to six litres of this higher concentrated milk replacer solution, daily. However in order to avoid the possibly of scours due to this increased milk replacer concentration, consider a third milk replacer feeding of two litres of regularly mixed up milk replacer.

Calf starter should also be introduced to outside dairy calves the same as calves fed at any other time of the year. Two week old calves won’t eat a significant amount of calf starter to receive much dietary energy, but they will nibble on it. In contrast, when they become five to six weeks old, one calf should consume to a kilo of calf starter per day and then can be weaned.

In addition to whole milk or milk replacer and dry calf starter, extra water should be provided even during the winter so pre-weaned calves can meet their total water requirement, which is not provided by whole milk or milk replacer fed alone. Water helps them consume and digest more energy-enriched calf starter. Subsequently, it makes sense to remove all frozen water from the previous day and fill buckets with warm water.

Another part of good calf winter care is having an established health plan, because the greatest rate of morbidity and mortality among young dairy calves occurs from birth to weaning. Consult your veterinarian for assistance. Their guidance can help set up an effective disease prevention program (re: vaccination) as well as help treat any sick calves with proper medical therapies.

A suitable on-going arrangement with your vet will not only keep dairy calves on their feet, but coupled with an optimum nutrition program and good outside housing can help calves manage in some of our coldest winters. A little TLC also is a good idea. As a result calves born in the winter can remain comfortable and healthy, most likely without needing a pair of long-johns.

PeterVittiisanindependentlivestocknutritionist andconsultantbasedinWinnipeg.To reachhimcall204-254-7497orbyemailat [email protected]

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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