By Grace Kline
During the fall season, some of you may be having chilly but calm weather. Soon enough, that’s going to change. The winter weather can be unpredictable, so this is the perfect time to review the protocols that help our calves thrive through the cold.
One term that is good to remain familiar with is the thermoneutral zone. The thermoneutral zone is the temperature range where a calf does not need to expel extra energy to maintain comfortable body heat. According to the Calf Care Corner run by Veal Farmers of Ontario, “From birth until four weeks of age, this range is between 10°C and 25°C (50 – 77°F), and from four weeks to weaning, it decreases to 0°C to 25°C (32 – 77°F)” (Veal Farmers of Ontario, 2019). Because we cannot control the outside temperature, we need to provide the calves with the environment and the tools necessary to continue to grow through the winter and turn into profitable cattle.
How do we do this?
Keeping calves clean and dry is one of, if not the most crucial, aspect of calf raising. When setting up a hutch for a new calf, I first lay down a pile of shavings. This will absorb moisture, keeping wet groundwater away from the calf and holding moisture out of the straw. Sawdust and shavings will provide a good base for the straw bedding. During the winter, calves need to be bedded in deep straw. It should be deep enough for the calf to “nest” in, creating an extra layer of insulation for their body heat. Sam Leadley, a calf and heifer management specialist with Attica Veterinary Associates of NY, always recommended a nest that is 4”-6” deep (Leadley, 2019). It is essential to keep an eye on the weather and monitor the status of your bedding so that you can be prepared for any winter storms or freezing weather.
Another tool that is useful for insulating calves is a calf jacket. These provide another valuable layer of insulation and require careful monitoring. Calf jackets are adjustable and should fit the calf well to prevent the jacket from coming off. Jackets should only be placed on dry calves with cold temperature living facilities. A jacket on a wet calf will not allow the calf to dry, adding to its cold stress. Also, a jacket placed on a calf living in a warm environment or under a heat lamp could overheat the calf, causing it to sweat.
Jackets will get dirty, no doubt about it. They will need to be changed to keep the calves clean, especially if they are in a group setting. Bacteria could stay in a dirty jacket, and we risk the calf becoming ill. They are machine washable for easy clean-up.
As the weather gets colder, calves use more energy to keep warm. This can damper their ability to grow and maintain body heat if feed rates are not carefully managed. We can discuss a few different options, and you can decide what works for you.
Feeding more milk in the winter is one option that can be done in one of two ways. Adding a third feeding will give the calves an extra boost during the day, if you are not already doing so. Purposefully visiting your calves for this third time will allow you to monitor them closely and exchange any frozen water buckets for fresh, warm water that encourages drinking. You can also choose to increase the solids in the average amount of milk you choose to feed. If you feed a milk replacer, getting a winter-specific or even a higher fat milk replacer will increase the amount of energy the calf digests. There are other options for fat additives if you are feeding whole milk as well, such as a milk fortifier. It is best to consult your herd nutritionist or veterinarian about changes to the calves’ diet.
Calves can ingest energy from their starter grain as well. Even in the winter, keeping fresh and clean water in front of calves will help boost the amount of starter they can eat (Leadley, 2019.). Offering warmer water in the winter may be more appetizing to the calf, which will in turn encourage them to eat grain.
Calf-Tel strives to keep your calves comfortable all year round. Calf hutches have been preferred by farmers worldwide for the fresh air they offer, and Calf-Tel continues to make them better and more adaptable to each farmer’s specifications and preferences.
The new 24|74 hutch from Calf-Tel features an upper ridge vent, which slides back and forth along the top of the hutch to open and close. The rear bedding door comes in different styles, which can all be propped open for maximum air flow in the summer. An additional lower rear vent has been added to the back of the hutch, giving you 5 adjustable pieces to control air flow in each hutch.
So, what do you do for the winter?
While the nights are cold, but the days are warm, I have been leaving the rear bedding door propped up on a lower setting than I would during the summer here in the northeastern US. This still allows for fresh air flow, but does not expose the calf to the cool nights too much. This would be a good time to consider closing the lower rear vents as well. You may have to decide whether it is time to close 1 or 2, or all 3 based on your location and if you have dramatic temperature changes.
The front of the calf hutch allows for the most air exchange (Tyson, 2021). During the winter, you will notice that calves prefer to nestle into the back of the hutch, removing herself from the air that moves in the front. When the temperatures fall under the calf’s thermoneutral zone (50°F) on a regular basis, it is time to close the remainder of the vents. Monitoring the air in your hutches will reduce the risk of a draft, which can cause pneumonia.
Let’s recap. A few of the most important things to monitor during the cold are bedding, calf jackets, ventilation and energy demands. Keeping your calves clean, dry, and well bedded will allow them to maintain their body heat with less energy. Giving hutch calves jackets will give them an added layer of protection, while nestling into their deep straw bedding. Properly managing hutch ventilation will keep drafts off calves, reducing their risk of respiratory illness or pneumonia. Finally, keeping up with energy demands will help calves not only maintain, but grow, and thrive through the cold.
Grace Kline has raised dairy calves in the northeastern USA for many years. She is a graduate of SUNY Morrisville and farms with her husband at Diamond Valley Dairy LLC in Pennsylvania. Grace’s family enjoy growing and showing registered Holstein and Jersey cattle. Grace is also a valued member of the sales team at Farmer Boy Ag.
Citations and References:
Leadley, Sam. “Cold Weather Bedding.” Atticacows.com, ATTICA VETERINARY ASSOCIATES, P.C., 2019, http://www.atticacows.com/library/newsletters/ColdWeatherBeddingN19161.pdf.
Leadley, Sam. “Good Growth in Cold Weather.” Atticacows.com, ATTICA VETERINARY ASSOCIATES, P.C., 2019, http://www.atticacows.com/library/newsletters/GdGrowCldWea2R1923.pdf. Accessed Sept. 2022.
Tyson, John. “Winter Ventilation for Calves.” Penn State Extension, 27 Sept. 2021, https://extension.psu.edu/winter-ventilation-for-calves.
Veal Farmers of Ontario. “Adapting Calf Housing and Feeding to Winter’s Cold Temperatures.” CalfCare.ca, Veal Farmers of Ontario, 2 Aug. 2019, https://calfcare.ca/management/housing/cold-weather-housing/adapting-calf-housing-and-feeding-to-winters-cold-temperatures/.