Baby it's cold outside!
It’s winter, so no matter where you live it gets cold. But here in Wisconsin, we know cold! I mean REALLY cold! On our dairy farm, we have 60 baby calves to keep warm and cozy every day. We can’t bring them in the house for hot cocoa or a warm fire (though in emergencies, we have brought a struggling baby in the house). The deep freeze requires a lot of extra time and energy to make sure all the animals are fed, watered, and warm… especially calves. Here’s a few tricks that we use to make sure our calves stay healthy and comfortable during cold weather.
Hot box incubator
When a calf is born, it is wet and slimy. The mother licks the baby calf off but just can't warm it up with her tongue. That's why we put newborn calves in a drying box. This incubator will quickly warm them up and dry their hair. We will feed the newborn one gallon of fresh, warm milk from it's mother. After 4-5 hours, it will be ready to move to a clean, dry, comfy calf pen (bedroom).
Calves are born without fat on their body. To help
keep them warm, we give each calf a winter jacket. On extremely cold days, we give them custom ear muffs! Calves will wear this jacket for 6-8 weeks. By then, the calf has a good layer of fat for insulation and their hair “bushes out” to give them a natural defense to colder weather. FYI – calves start getting cold at 50 degrees. So, we start using calf jackets in October. (Gumdrop, Everly, Jazzy & Blexy are pictured at the end of the blog.)
Calves are kept inside a calf barn or housed in individual calf hutches (bedrooms) outside. No matter the “house”, the critical factors are eliminating drafts, keeping them dry, and giving them enough straw bedding to nestle in and stay warm. We sometimes use heat lamps over baby calves during the coldest days or when they are sick. I’ve put extra blankets, a heating pad or even liter bottles of hot water next to them if they need an extra boost to keep warm.
You may ask yourself, why not just put them in a heated barn. Years ago, many farmers did just that, but we learned that the key to healthy calves is constant fresh air free of moisture and ammonia smell. Heated calf barns don’t always provide the best air which leads to pneumonia and sick calves. Trust me, a heated calf barn sounds like heaven when you work outside in cold every day. But, it’s not the best atmosphere to grow healthy, thrifty calves. So, we farmers put on a few more layers of clothing and extra gloves as we work to keep our calves in the healthiest environment possible.
Feed more groceries
Calves use extra energy in the winter to stay warm. We feed them a higher fat milk to give them the extra energy they need to keep warm. During the coldest of days, we will even give them an extra feeding of warm milk. By nature, their body tells them to eat more calf granola for energy to keep warm. Remember, we are in Wisconsin. Water freezes! So, we have a heated water bucket in their pen.
Living in Wisconsin's “winter wonderland” makes it a bit more challenging in taking care of baby calves. I’m not kidding. Our days are long enough already and dealing with the extra cold, extra feedings, extra labor, and frozen water makes them even longer. But, not one farmer likes dealing with stressed or sick calves. That’s why we work so hard to get them off to a great start when they are born and every day after that.
You see, healthy, thrifty calves grow into healthy, thrifty cows. Healthy cows require less management time and produce more milk. That’s the goal. Keeping animals healthy during all sorts of weather. A little extra effort in cold weather assures a promising future.
The next time you get cold and put on a jacket, remember Farmer Pam's calves! You both need proper clothing and good caregivers to look after you!