Winter can be a stressful and difficult season for people and cattle. Increased cattle disease incidence can result if proper precautions are not taken for calves and adult cows. Here are some tips to help your cattle get through this year’s winter weather.


Proper colostrum program for calves

The most important meal a dairy animal takes is the first one. Colostrum must be given to both heifer and bull calves – ideally within 4 hours of birth. Holstein calves should be given 4 quarts of colostrum; Jersey calves should receive 3 quarts to ensure adequate immunity. Not having enough immunity is especially hard on calves in winter, and significantly increases the risk of disease and death.


Adequate caloric intake

Calves must gain weight to thrive and maintain an immune system. Weight gain takes calories, and not having enough calories is a leading cause of calfhood diseases. In cold weather (less than 50°F), calves need even more calories to maintain body temperature. I like to see Holstein calves drink 2 gallons of milk per day, and Jerseys drink 1.5 gallons per day. Just increasing milk replacer powder will increase the osmolality (concentration) of the milk, a risk factor for digestive disease, especially Clostridial abomasitis, and death. For this reason, I recommend increasing the amount of fluid milk, either pasteurized whole milk or milk replacer mixed appropriately, rather than increasing powder only.


Maintain body temperature

Calves on milk are not producing the body heat that an adult cow or older heifer produces. For this reason, we need to provide extra care for them to stay warm. In cold environments (less than 40°F) calves should have a calf blanket on at all times. Newborn calves should be dried off thoroughly before putting on a blanket or placed in a warming box.

Calves should also be provided deep, clean, dry bedding. Dry bedding means your knees do not get wet when you kneel in it. Deep bedding means the calf can nest in the bedding and its legs are not visible when lying down.

Calves and heifers covered in manure cannot maintain body temperature, wasting calories to stay warm vs. growing. Look at your heifer pens and see how much manure is caked on your heifers. Failing to provide appropriate bedding and not keeping pens maintained free of manure buildup is a waste of your feed dollars. In addition, animal health will suffer by diverting calories to maintaining body temperature instead of maintaining the immune system.



A mistake some farmers make in the winter is closing up the barn to keep it warm. Adequate ventilation is essential for respiratory health. Allowing young calves to be free of drafts is important, but this does not mean sacrificing fresh air.

Sidewalls should have curtains and ridge openings to allow noxious gas to escape. Significant air quality improvement can be achieved by installing a properly designed positive pressure ventilation tube. It is important to find a qualified and trained ventilation tube designer to ensure fresh air is provided without creating drafts.

To evaluate ventilation in your calf barn, use a smoker, as well as get down to calf level to smell the air.

Do not put tarps and boards over calf pens to keep them warm. Instead, provide calf blankets and deep clean bedding.

Adult cow barns also need adequate ventilation. Cows produce a large amount of heat from rumination, therefore barns can be kept more open on the sidewalls and ridge to allow air exchanges. Excessive rates of pneumonia are not typically due to cold weather or drafts, but often due to inadequate ventilation.


Chapped teats

Chapped teats can be problematic in the winter for cows. Keep stall beds dry and provide deep bedding. Consider drying teats or dabbing teat ends with a towel after postmilking teat dipping. Maintain milking equipment and procedures to prevent teat end damage.

Remember that disease rate increases in winter weather are often due to management failures. Ask your veterinarian to guide you in prevention protocols.


Fred Gingrich, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services, Inc., in Ashland, Ohio. Contact him via e-mail: