As the temperatures begin to drop it is a sure sign that winter is just around the corner. Farmers are always busy and wintertime is no exception. They are busy taking care of the cattle and making necessary repairs to equipment, getting it ready for the next growing season. As we shift gears from one season to the next, we need to take a look at the changes that need to be made in our dairy operations, especially regarding calf care in the winter months. Young calves are the future of the herd and the farmer relies on them as replacement animals. The first thing to remember is that each calf is different and has its own needs. Just like us, they respond to the changing weather in various ways. Some of us love the colder weather, enjoy being out in it and even thrive in it while others find the adjustment hard and need extra support to do well.
When a calf is born, it is dependent on its mother’s colostrum to get nutrients it needs. As the calf is transitioned to milk replacer that calf needs a consistent, quality feed to reduce stress especially during the winter months. In colder weather, calves require a higher energy and fat content in their diet to keep them healthy and growing strong. Cold stress has a negative effect on young calves. Instead of using the energy and fat consumed in their diet for growth, their bodies will be focused on trying to maintain homeostasis in regards to body temperature and will divert nutrients to meet this new challenge. Calves should be fed a high quality diet that meets their necessary energy requirement and fed a ration with at a minimum of 20 percent fat to assist them in maintaining their body temperature. Calves need to feed at consistent times throughout the day with fluids being fed at a constant temperature. Karen Anderson from the University of Minnesota Extension Center suggests that milk and water be fed at the calf’s body temperature, 101.5 degrees so that they are not using valuable energy to warm that feed up to body temperature. It is also recommended to increase the number of feedings throughout the day by dividing up the daily intake and spreading it out. If a farmer usually fed two times a day he would increase to three times a day instead.
Calves can tolerate colder temperatures if their energy requirements are being met through proper nutrition as mentioned above and if they are provided a clean, dry area to rest. This I feel is just as important to proper calf care in the winter months as is their diet. You can be feeding to meet all of their nutritional needs, but if you’re housing your calves in a wet, drafty area, health issues will present themselves and add additional stress to the animals. A deeply bedded area with clean straw or hay, whether it be in a single calf hutch or group housing, will give the calf a place to snuggle into and help it maintain body temperature. My parents always joked around with me about what they called the “knee test” when I was younger and learning how to take care of the calves on my home farm. They taught me that if I kneeled down in the calf pen for about 20 seconds and my knees stayed dry, the bedding was suitable for my calves, but if my knees got wet, it was time to change the bedding out. A good lesson to follow.
If the weather turns really cold you can aid your calves even further by putting a calf jacket on them. Just like us, a warm jacket provides a barrier to the weather and space between our skin and the material for warm air to accumulate. The same holds true for the calf. Properly fitting jackets can reduce the stressful effects of the cold. Jackets should be switched out and replaced if they become wet, and laundered and dried between uses on different animals.
In addition to proper nutrition, dry bedding and the use of jackets, it is very important to maintain a well-ventilated area for your calves to live. There needs to be a good air exchange in the housing area to make sure ammonia levels from manure and urine are kept low, but at the same time the area needs to be free from drafts as this could lead to other health concerns including pneumonia. That is a stress that no farmer wants to address. By taking a few extra steps and making adjustments to care and feeding, the winter months will breeze by and before long we will be back to the warmer, sunnier days of spring. Until next time!
If you would like to learn more about SUNY Cobleskill’s agriculture programs and club activities, please contact Kim Tarvis at email@example.com.
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