Help Calves Get Thru the Cold Season

Help Calves Get Through the Cold Season
Megan Wildman, Calf & Heifer Specialist, Purina Animal Nutrition
Shared by Katie Brown, Calf & Heifer Specialist, Purina Animal Nutrition and All American Co-op

If you’re finding yourself putting on an extra layer of clothes, chances are your calves are already experiencing cold stress.


Calves under 3 weeks of age can begin feeling cold stress much earlier than most people think. Even at ambient temperatures of 60 degrees F and below, cold stress can hinder calf growth and performance. Cold stress can continue to affect calves over 3 weeks of age as ambient temperatures dip to 40 degrees F and below.


Below are some tips to help keep calves growing and thriving until temperatures begin to heat back up.


Use calf jackets

Calf jackets are a simple and effective tool to help calves conserve heat. Use calf jackets on newborn calves and continue using until they outgrow them. When using calf jackets, calf raisers should review their sanitation practices, as it is important to properly wash calf jackets between uses.


Maintain dry and deep straw beds

A deep straw bed can help calves’ ability to nest and conserve heat. Calf pens and hutches should always be clean and dry. A quick way to test whether or not bedding is dry is the knee test. If you put your knee down and it stays dry, your bedding is dry enough. If not, it is time to re-bed.


Use a 1-3 bedding scorecard to evaluate whether or not bedding packs are deep enough based on how much of the calf’s legs are showing when they are lying down. If no legs are showing (optimal), the bedding score would be a 3; if half of their legs are showing (acceptable), the score would be a 2; if all of the legs are showing (unacceptable), the bedding score would be a 1. A score of 1 indicates that it is time to add bedding to the pack. 


Offer consistent nutrition, formulated for cooler weather

Feeding calves a higher plane of nutrition, formulated for the season is particularly important as temperatures begin to drop. Try to feed calves 2.5 pounds of calf milk replacer powder per day to ensure that calves are receiving enough energy. The ColdFront® calf milk replacer formula is excellent for providing the extra energy calves need in the cooler months.


Providing the correct balance of fat and carbohydrates is key to achieving optimal energy intake. A common misconception amongst calf raisers is that increasing fat alone in the calf diet during cooler weather will make up for a calf’s increased energy demands. A 50 percent increase in calf milk replacer powder can yield a 50 percent increase in energy. Alternatively, a 100 percent increase in fat alone in the calf diet may only yield a 12 percent increase in energy (NRC 2001).


It is also important to limit the time that calves are not receiving nutrition. A three times per day feeding program (eight hour increments) allows for more balanced energy intake and availability.


Calf raisers should aim to introduce calf starter ad libitum to calves at 2-3 days of age and increase feeding rate as appetite increases. In cool weather, AMPLI-Calf® Cool Weather Starter does a great job in stimulating appetite and providing optimal energy availability to help support calf weight gains and structural growth in spite of cold weather.


Offer plenty of fresh, warm water

During heat stress periods, providing calves with extra water is a no-brainer. But calf raisers often underestimate the level of dehydration associated with the lower relative humidity and dry air brought on by colder weather. Calves should be fed warm water between 101-102 degrees F. Water temperature becomes increasingly important in cold weather. Cold water forces calves to use extra energy to heat the water up to their core body temperature post-consumption.


Provide a draft-free environment

In warm weather, drafts can keep calves cool, but when the air cools, cold air drafts promote body heat loss. Body heat loss requires calves to allocate more energy towards body temperature maintenance and thus limits energy available for growth. A simple way to check for drafts is with your bare hand. If you feel more than slight air movement, a draft could be present.


Cold weather doesn’t only affect young calves. Calf raisers need to address post-weaning calf management, especially in cooler weather. To help cut down on the added stress of weaning, post-weaned calves should be grouped in small, even groups for up to three weeks post-weaning. To help promote intake post-weaning, calves should be fed the same calf starter, all the way up to twelve weeks, where they can then be fed a grower feed as they transition to a diet higher in fiber.


Maintaining optimal calf growth and health can be a delicate balance. Cold weather adds stress for both the calf and the producer. Taking a proactive stance in keeping calves’ energy levels up, stress levels down and facilities up to par can help your calves avoid winter growth slumps so that they can keep growing and gaining and enter the lactating herd sooner.


For more information, contact your Purina Animal Nutrition calf and heifer specialist or visit or contact Calf and Heifer Specialist Kate Brown at 


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