Creating Microclimates for Calves

Dairy calves in group housing.
( Maureen Hanson )

In my last article I discussed how the maintenance requirements for calves increase when colder temperatures come knocking on our doors. This is especially true for the youngest members of the herd, under three weeks of age. While increasing nutrients is one part of the story of meeting the requirements of the calves there are also other methods to help alleviate the cold bite of Winter. We have greater control when it comes to what goes into the calf in terms of nutrients, but can we also control each calf’s environment by creating microclimates? We have little control on what Mother Nature throws our way but there are several steps that we as managers can make in order to influence the environment of the calf. Ultimately these steps will alleviate the severity of environmental temperatures and help our calves grow.

1. Right after birth

Get calves dry and warm ASAP. Try to minimize the time between when a calf is born and when it can get dried off. Towels can be used to help dry calves off. Additionally, it might be helpful to get a warming box. While a calf’s hair does provide a warming layer of protection, it needs to be dry to be effective.

2. During feeding

Regardless of the nutritional value, make sure every liquid meal a calf gets is at or just above body temperature (target 105˚F) when the calf is consuming that meal. Usually, the milk replacer tag has a recommendation for mixing temperature but also make sure that when that milk replacer finally makes it to the calf it is not below 105˚F. They will expend additional energy to reheat that meal, increasing maintenance.

3. Starter 

Provide starter from an early age. As calves start to consume it and the rumen starts to ferment feedstuff it will generate extra heat, essentially creating their own space heater. Offer water several times daily at calf body temperature. Water intake is linked to starter intake and rumen development. Research has shown that provision of warm water increases daily consumption throughout the preweaning period.

4. Bedding

Make sure bedding is dry and that there’s a lot of it. Straw is insulating to the calf and is ideal in cold weather. When the calf is laying down you shouldn’t see its legs. If you don’t provide enough to hide the calf’s legs, you may need an additional calf jacket to keep the calf warm. Furthermore, the bedding should be dry so make sure it’s well drained. An easy test is the “kneel test”: If you kneel on a bed and your knees are wet more bedding is needed.

5. An extra layer

Insulating calf jackets can be a great addition to a calf program. After my last article a farmer wrote to me indicating he felt they can be quite effective in keeping calves warm, and the jackets themselves are quite durable. Make sure you have enough jackets for your youngest calves at the highest calving level during the winter months. You may need extra so that you can wash them and make sure they stay relatively clean and dry.

6. Ventilation

In the winter months there should be adequate air turnover to minimize ammonia and the accumulation of other microorganisms while making sure there aren’t any drafts directly on the calf.

 

Note: This article came from the Miner Institute's Farm Report.

 
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