April 2020 Calf Blog

Winter Feeding Strategy Guidelines

We are still focusing on winter feeding strategies; here are a few guidelines to follow. Dairy heifers account for about 30% of the feed costs on a dairy farm, and the most costly period for raising heifers is during the preweaning period. The animal’s susceptibility to disease is greatest during this period, and the cost per unit of dry matter (DM) consumed is the highest. As we know, the energy requirement for calves housed in unheated facilities increases during the winter months due to cold stress (lower critical temperature for newborn calves of 48°F versus 32°F for older calves), and the cold stress can increase the risk for disease.

Unfortunately, the death rate sometimes increases in the winter, and/or the growth rate plummets unless we provide additional energy to these calves. In addition, we need to realize that small breed calves (e.g., Jersey) have about a 20% larger surface area per unit of body weight than large breed calves (e.g., Holstein).

Different feeding strategies for optimizing the growth of dairy calves during the winter months include: If a milk replacer is being used, it should contain at least 20% fat. The solids content of the liquid from milk replacer can be increased from 12.5% to 15% (from 17 to 20 oz per gallon). Increase the feedings per day from two to three times while holding the amount per feeding the same. Feed more milk per feeding, e.g., increase from 2 to 3 qt two times a day. Use a combination of these strategies so that small breed calves consume at least 1.3 lb of DM (milk replacer is approximately 95% DM; whole milk 13% DM) with 0.3 lb of fat and large breed calves consume 2.0 lb DM (0.5 lb fat) per day.

These strategies should be used while also offering a high-quality calf starter free choice and plenty of water. Water can certainly be a limiting nutrient during the winter months due to freezing. Hypothermia is a major risk for neonatal calves, and housing, feeding, and hydration are key considerations for minimizing hypothermia.

Consider these strategies to reduce the chance of hypothermia: Position hutches used for calves in a well-drained area (slope and gravel are important), and make sure the prevailing wind is not blowing into the front of the hutch. A windbreak upwind from the hutches can help reduce the wind chill on calves. Bed hutches with dry, organic bedding, preferably straw, so the calves can nestle in the bedding for warmth and reduce heat loss by conduction that would occur with inorganic (e.g., sand) bedding. Wet bedding also greatly increases conductive heat loss.

If calf coats are going to be used, check the inventory, and have all of them cleaned for use. Keep an ample supply of electrolytes on hand in the event of scours so the calves can be kept hydrated. 

 -Minnie