Finding the Best Calf Jacket for Winter Weather

by Kelly Driver, MBA

Photo by S. Morrison

As I sat down to write on this snowy morning in New York state, I was reminded of a conversation I had a few days ago about the differences in calf jackets. And yes, there is a difference. They are not created equal at all. And unless you are lucky enough to live in an area where the temperature never dips below 50oF, you have probably had to purchase jackets for the youngest herd members.

Too often we farmers tend to shop for calf jackets based solely on price, not necessarily the qualities and materials the jacket is made of. One of my hobbies is sewing and over the years I have learned about the properties of many different types of fabrics and clothing materials. I thought it might be worth chatting about some of those differences as they relate to the calf jacket.

First, let’s think about the basic parts of a jacket:

Shell. The shell of a calf jacket is the outermost portion and is the calf’s first line of defense from the elements and is also where the color and style points are on display. Elements we often look at in the calf jacket shell are the fabric type and water resistance, as well as the closure features – like buckles or Velcro that are strong enough to stay on the calf as they move about.

Filling. The filling of a jacket is what provides the most warmth. For example, a nylon or polyester coat usually doesn’t keep you very warm, but stuff it with down or a tightly woven polyester filling and it instantly becomes a protective layer against freezing temperatures and winds. Jackets filled with real down, like duck or goose feathers, offer one of the warmest, lightweight fillings available. Unfortunately, they are not waterproof and are very slow to dry, which doesn’t work well in the calf care world.

One of the lightest and very warmest filling materials offered is ThinsulateTM, a 3M product which is made of tiny polyester fibers that are super dense and because of their size are able to be woven with hardly any gaps between the fibers. This makes them very warm, as well as extremely water resistant. This technology can be a bit more expensive, but is worth every penny. Think about the times you have seen someone with a light-weight looking jacket on during a snow and wind storm and they appear to be quite warm and comfortable. It’s highly likely their jacket contains this material.

Lining. The lining of a jacket provides an inner layer of warmth, as well as helping the jacket maintain its shape. It generally provides a soft layer between the calf and any of the coarser materials used for the filling or shell. If we think about the lining in terms of our own human jackets, this layer is often quite soft and may contain polyester, silk or satin fabrics for comfort.

Now, let’s think about the best materials for each of those jacket parts:

Types of Shell Fabrics. I have seen a wide variety of fabrics used for the shell of calf jackets, including wool, fleece, polyester, nylon, flannel and denim. While materials like wool, fleece and flannel lead the purchaser to believe the calf jacket will be warm, we are forgetting that these fabrics are not waterproof. And as calf raisers, we all know that liquids go in the front of the calf in the form of milk and water and urine is expelled from the back. This happens even when they are laying down and leads to a very wet jacket when these types of fabrics are used. A wet jacket on a small calf in cold temperatures only adds to the heat loss equation.

The best fabrics for the outer shell of calf jackets are polyester and nylon. Both fabrics are basically a soft form of plastic and the main differences are that nylon is softer and stronger than polyester and doesn’t hold dye as well, so the color choices are probably more muted. Some of the brighter colored calf jackets on the market, like the pink ones available from Calf-Tel, are a nylon/polyester blend. Because of polyester’s water-resistant qualities and its absorption of dyes, it is often blended with other materials for the shell of both calf and human jackets. Polyester itself will protect from a medium amount of wind. Just one word of caution with polyester or its blends – read the care label when washing and drying. Polyester shrinks! Be certain to read the care label in the calf jacket to assure many years of use.

Types of Filling. I have seen jackets sold at different price points that are filled with layers of flannel, wool, and very thin sheets of polyester, a product sometimes used in lightweight quilts. In my opinion the key thing to be considered with a filling is the true insulating value it offers the calf, just as we expect a winter jacket to keep our children warm in cold and windy conditions.

The best product choice for filling a calf jacket is 3MTM ThinsulateTM insulation. It is lightweight, warm, and thin enough to allow the calf to move about freely. The fine fibers in this insulation are designed to help trap and hold body heat, while allowing moisture to escape. ThinsulateTM comes in different grams of insulating value, but as the graphic below indicates, for the stationary body, 200g offers the most insulating value. Let’s think now about the amount of time young calves spend resting and we have found the best option for filling calf jackets.

Source: ThinsulateTM

 Of course, this technology costs a bit more than some of the less-insulating, water-repellant fillings on the market today.

Types of Lining. On the lining, we normally are looking at a fabric that is both soft and water repellant. I do see some cheaper calf jacket styles that will have fleece or flannel linings, but again in the best interests of keeping the calf truly warm and dry, polyester or nylon blends are the best option for their water-repellant quality.

Just as we shop for jackets that will keep our youngest human family members warm, we should give the same consideration to our youngest herd members who lack the body fat reserves to keep themselves warm in the coldest temperatures.

I like to equate the difference in calf jackets to this: Would we send a young child skiing down a mountainside in a simple, single layer windbreaker or would we be certain they were wearing a high quality, triple layer jacket offering real insulation from the winter winds? I think our calves should be treated no differently. Kelly Driver, MBA has been involved in the New York dairy industry all her life. In addition to raising dairy calves and replacement heifers, she is the Eastern US & Canada Territory Manager for Calf-Tel. Feel free to contact her at kellydriver@hampelcorp.com with your calf questions or suggest a topic you would like addressed in a future blog.

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