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Help calves overcome cold stress

When calves get cold, they spend a lot of energy trying to stay warm. They then have less energy available for growth and immune system function. Cold-stressed calves are more prone to scours and pneumonia, compromising weight gain and overall health.

Very young calves, those less than 3 weeks old, feel cold stress at 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Calves 6 weeks and older begin to feel cold stress at about 42 degrees. Of course, if calves are exposed to wind, snow or rain, they will feel cold stress more acutely, even at warmer temperatures.

DocWhiteThe calf’s surroundings make a big difference. Adequate shelter provides tremendous benefits. Straw is an excellent bedding for keeping calves warm. It should be deep enough to cover the foot and at least part of the leg when the calf burrows in it for warmth. Wet bedding hurts more than it helps, so be sure to keep it clean and dry.

A great option to provide additional warmth is a calf jacket, which prevents the animal from losing heat as quickly. Make sure the calf is completely dry before putting a jacket on it. Moisture trapped against the calf’s hide can be problematic.

Providing more calories is another way to help calves manage cold stress. The goal is to provide enough energy to offset the additional demands on the calf’s body. One way to do this is to increase the amount of milk given at each feeding. This is convenient because the feeding schedule doesn’t change. However, this can be a problem for very young calves who can’t or won’t drink the extra milk or the bottle used is at capacity.

Adding a third feeding of the same volume as the other two will also provide extra energy by substantially increasing the caloric intake. As long as you keep the timing consistent, you don’t necessarily need equal intervals between each feeding. A common feeding schedule might be 6 a.m., 12 p.m., and 6 p.m., but a similar plan would also work.

Increasing the caloric content of the milk is another option. This is done by adding more milk replacer powder to the milk, instead of the typical mixing rate of a pound of powder to a gallon of water. The calf then consumes the same amount of milk—for example, 2 quarts—but the fat and protein content of the milk is higher. Fat provides more calories than protein, so adding a fat supplement by itself will increase the energy density more than adding milk replacer powder. Regardless of whether you add more powder or just fat, the total solids of the milk should not go above 16%. If so, calves without free-choice water can get dehydrated.

When it gets cold, you’ll often see calves eat more starter feed. In some ways, this is beneficial. Higher starter intake can lead to faster rumen development, and heat generated by the bacteria in the rumen will warm the calf. Remember, as calves eat more starter, the amount of water the calf requires increases, so warm water should be provided multiple times a day to prevent freezing.

Often the reason calves eat more starter is due to an insufficient amount of milk being offered. This may be part of the management strategy, such as when I cut back on feeding milk a week before weaning to get the calves to eat more starter. While we definitely want calves to eat starter feed, balance is needed between grain and milk consumption.

Read more of the Feb. 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine Issue HERE.

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