Keep Calves Performing Even in Cold Weather
Calf performance can dip as the temperature drops, but management and nutritional tweaks help maintain calf performance.
Calf performance may be at risk any time the temperature drops lower than 59 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s when animals start to divert energy from growing and toward maintaining a normal body temperature.
Producers can help calves maintain their perfect temperature – and gains – with simple tweaks, advised Sarah Morrison, Ph.D., research scientist at the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute.
Defining cold for calves
Calves less than 3 weeks of age are more affected by temperatures below 59 degrees. The detrimental effects of cold weather increase as the thermometer drops. Plus, wind speed, precipitation and humidity can contribute to the chill, Morrison said.
“There is not a temperature-to-humidity index for cold weather like we have for heat stress effects,” she explained. “We know as humans that precipitation or humidity in the air will result in a damp chill that you just can’t shake.”
Cold weather is something Morrison and her team battle in their own research barns near Chazy, New York, which is about 10 miles from the Canadian border.
“For us in our new calf barn, we have to be thinking about the cold weather conditions and humidity. That’s when we see calves start to get sick. So, we did some work with cold stress and experimented with different feeding conditions and management of calves.”
In addition to their own research barns, the Miner Institute asked area farms to increase their baseline feeding programs during cold weather. They also asked farms to add additional milk replacer and use probiotic supplements to measure potential changes in performance.
The biggest effects were seen in calves less than 3 weeks old. Increasing the amount of food showed an improvement in growth. One farm saw a difference in average daily gains (ADG) of 0.26 pounds to 1.74 pounds ADG during lower milk allowances and above 2 pounds ADG during higher milk allowances. Health scores also improved.
“Providing additional milk or milk replacer and encouraging starter feed intake kept the calves out of the thermoneutral zone and helped them be less affected by colder temperatures,” Morrison said.
Kevin Shaffer, Ph.D., a West Virginia Extension specialist, also recommended paying close attention to mineral supplementation in cold weather for both cows and calves to help optimize immune health.1
Other than nutrition, Morrison also recommends management tweaks to help calves retain their body heat and maintain growth, including:
- Clean, dry bedding
- Wind block and shelters
- Plenty of clean, fresh water
- Cleaning and drying newborn calves as quickly as possible
Care of newborn calves is an especially important concern in cold weather. Shaffer noted that calves born into cold weather without adequate shelter may be slower at birth. In turn, this could affect their ability to receive colostrum and create impaired immune health.
“It’s important for the newborn calves to make sure you get them dry within a quick time period,” she said. “It makes sure they are able to insulate themselves more right away.”
1 Shaffer K. Lingering effects of cold stress. West Virginia Extension. February 2018. https://extension.wvu.edu/agriculture/livestock/beef-cattle/lingering-effects-of-cold-stress
2 Jones C, Heinrichs J. Calf management tips for cold weather. January 4, 2023. https://extension.psu.edu/calf-management-tips-for-cold-weather
- Calves less than 3 weeks old are most susceptible to cold stress
- Increase feed or milk replacer to provide additional energy
- A clean, dry hair coat helps provides insulation
- Calves can’t drink ice so ensure water supply is unobstructed
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