Managing calves during cold weather! 

By on January 29, 2024
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Managing calves during cold weather! 

It’s cold outside!  What have you done to take care of your calves during cold weather?  This blog will start with a general discussion regardless of the system used and then conclude with a few tips on  using the features of autofeeders to better address winter conditions.

The biggest thing to remember is that energy requirements increase dramatically during cold weather.   Calves have  more  surface area/unit of body weight compared to older animals and they lose body heat quickly.  The impact of temperature is illustrated in the table below.

Note that as temperature declines the calf must consume more milk to even attain a very limited gain of 0.3 lb (36g) / day.   During especially cold weather, two gallons (9L) of milk are required to meet maintenance requirements, with nothing left to support growth! 

Managing calves fed with buckets or bottles 

  • Feed more milk. One can readily see that using three-quart bottles is not sufficient to even meet maintenance requirements when the temperature drops below freezing!   Four-quart bottles enable higher feeding rates but are difficult to handle, particularly where bottle trailers are used. Feeding calves in buckets allows greater flexibility but it’s much slower than feeding calves with bottles.  Make sure that the milk delivery tank is insulated and monitor the temperature of the milk when it is delivered to the calf.  Don’t allow milk to get below 105° F as lower temperatures allow pathogens like Clostridium perf. to proliferate in the lower gut.    Delivering an extra feeding enables better growth, but it’s often difficult to accomplish this from a labor perspective!  Failure to meet a calf’s energy requirements means that calves will lose weight and become more susceptible to disease! 
  • Provide deep bedding so that calves can nest to insulate their body heat, and make sure it’s replenished before a cold snap reaches the farm.
  • Use calf blankets to help calves retain body heat.
  • Pay special attention to providing adequate amounts of fresh water. This can be a challenge with bucket feeding systems, where water must be provided after each milk feeding.  Adequate water intake is required to supplement that from the liquid diet and to ensure early intake of calf starters.   
  • Take care of the calf feeders. Remember it’s cold and miserable for them too!   When it’s bitterly cold they frequently have one objective!   Get back where it’s warm!

Managing calves with autofeeders

This is where the autofeeder can really shine in feeding calves during nearly any kind of weather.  First, since calves are in a building, the environment is bound to be better for the person in charge of managing calves, and one doesn’t need as many people to feed higher milk allotments!   Here are the key points to address:

  • Feed plenty of milk – With the 40 fit program or ad lib milk settings the calves can adjust their intake automatically to changes in weather. Calves have been known to consume 16 L of milk in one day.  They can eat at nearly any time, but it’s recommended to limit intake to 2 L every 2 hours.  If a restricted feeding plan is used, then consider increasing the milk allotment  or the fat % in the milk replacer during cold weather.
  • Make sure that there is sufficient milk powder or milk in the storage vessel to accommodate higher milk intake by the group.  
  • Keep the machine functioning as designed.
    • In climates with colder weather the autofeeder is commonly housed in a heated room.
    • Make sure that the milk lines from the feeder to the nipple don’t have low spots (can freeze) or use some insulated covers or heat tapes to keep the milk flowing.
    • Conduct a cleaning cycle 4X/day to make sure that the lines stay cleaned out and sanitized.
  • Calf housing. Since these calves are customarily housed in a building ….
    • Don’t seal the building. Keep doors open during the day and allow fresh air into the building. Winter ventilation should allow 4 air exchanges per hour, regardless of the outside temperature.  The purpose of this is to make sure that there is fresh air coming into the facility to replace the dirty air particles that can often contain pathogens that contribute to respiratory diseases.
    • Rebed the pens- Clean straw is preferred!
  • Make that last trip through the facility to make sure that all feeders are operating. If one shuts down for more than a few hours, it can take a while for it to catch up in feeding calves.

Pay attention to the weather forecast.  The best calf managers anticipate upcoming changes in the weather by making sure the autofeeders are in peak operating condition and that there’s plenty of milk replacer or whole milk when the cold weather arrives.   

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