Warming calves best practices | TheFencePost.com

Warming calves best practices

Moving quickly to warm calves is intuitive but having equipment, wind breaks, colostrum, and tubing supplies ready can be vitally important.
Photo by Julie Ochsner

An ounce of prevention during cold weather calving is worth a heavy, healthy, scale-tipping calf at weaning time. While the old saying may not go exactly like that, Dr. Lora Bledsoe maintains its truth.

Bledsoe, a large animal practitioner in Hugo, Colo., said strategically placed windbreaks can be a simple solution when severe weather and high winds are predicted. Feed cattle behind windbreaks before storms, rather than placing windbreaks where cattle are typically fed to avoid bacteria build up. More frequent checks to keep calves up and nursing regularly may require extra help but are worth the effort. Bledsoe said while this may sound intuitive, she frequently speaks to ranchers with higher instances of sickness or death loss and check intervals were too long.

To treat a chilled newborn calf, Bledsoe said consumption of warm colostrum is key to warming the calf using the heat from the colostrum and providing the energy necessary to allow the calf to also warm itself. Chilled calves, she said, have decreased ability to absorb antibodies from colostrum so an additional dose once the calf is warm may be in order.

A Canadian study proved that a warm water bath is the most efficient method to warm calves, saving about 30 minutes over the method of using heat lamps and blowing warm air on the calf. It also takes significantly less energy from the calf to warm in a bath opposed to a heat lamp, both critical savings when warmth and energy reserves matter. Breathing warm air is a good first step to warming a chilled calf so placing them on the floorboard of the pickup with the heater running is a good starting place. Bledsoe cautions vigilance if producers elect to place calves on electric blankets. The concentrated nature of the electric heat requires that calves or the blanket be rotated to avoid thermal burns, especially if the calf isn’t yet strong enough to stand.

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She also recommends paying mind to drying ears and feet first as those extremities are the most likely to sustain frost bite, with the feet being the more critical of the two.

Carrying a digital thermometer is a cheap investment that helps measure progress in warming a calf and is more reliable than placing a finger in the calf’s mouth to determine whether or not it is cold. Normal temperature for a calf is 101.5 to 102, anything below 101 is considered chilled.

Drenching calves delivers nutrients in the form of warm fluid and can be done once they’re warmed and mostly dry to speed the process along. The process of drenching can be intimidating for some producers, but Bledsoe said it can be beneficial, especially when done with a process in place.

She recommends backing a standing calf into a corner with the calf’s neck between your knees. Clamp off the tube so no fluid is leaked into the calf prematurely and feel the calf’s neck to feel the tube-like structure that is the trachea. The trachea has ridges of cartilage whereas the esophagus does not. If the tube is passed correctly, Bledsoe said the tuber will feel the tube passed into the throat next to the trachea, leaving the throat feeling like there are two tubes. If only one “tube” can be felt, the tube is in the trachea and must be reinserted. Once the tube is in the correct place, the fluid can be allowed to flow at a rate that allows the calf time to swallow.

It is important to note that disposable tubes and bags may be a bit more awkward, but the cleanliness is far superior to traditional tubes and bottles, especially if they’re not sanitized between uses.

“If there are any bacteria growing in the tube or bottle, the colostrum antibodies are going to bind to the bacteria and not be absorbed by the calf,” she said. “Cleanliness is paramount. Reusable drench bottles need to be cleaned and then either placed in boiling water or had boiling water run through them before they are stored in plastic bags.”

For cattle on feed that go off their ration during the storm, Bledsoe said adjustments can be made to the ration to increase roughage and then gradually increasing concentrate levels to those fed prior to the storm. She admits this can be challenging and said another option is a commercially available rumen drench that ensures an appropriate bacterial and protozoic landscape to deal with high concentrate diets. This product was originally formulated for use in the dairy industry but is gaining traction in feedyard use and with producers moving cattle to corn stalks. ❖​

— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at rgabel@thefencepost.com or (970) 768-0024.


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