Cold Weather Concerns on Animal Health | Main edition


As we move into the winter season, we need to be alert to situations where cold weather can play a role in animal health. In general, dairy animals can generally handle temperatures in adolescents as long as they are protected from wind and rain. But if we drop below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, problems can arise, especially in baby calves.

Calves in individual hutches will be more sensitive than those in a group pen, simply because those in a group can congregate and share body heat. Animals need to burn energy to maintain their body temperature when it is really cold. Young calves have very little body fat and if their energy intake is not sufficient, they can starve to death within a few extremely cold days.

I remember being called to a farm where three calves had died the night before. I performed autopsies and found no body fat. The owner reported seeing one of them eating the straw bedding the day before. The calf was doing this in a desperate attempt to gain energy. Two liters of standard milk replacer twice a day will not provide enough energy for a calf alone in a hutch in severe cold. Consider adding a third feed or giving whole milk to prevent this. Additionally, provide a deep bed of clean straw to minimize heat loss from the calf to the ground.

Another concern in very cold weather is freezing the teats of cows. This is more likely to happen if cows leave the milking parlor with a wet bath on their teats. If they are exposed to the wind, they can be even more at risk. It may be better to stop the soak when temperatures drop below 10 degrees, or take longer to wipe up the soak before releasing the cows. The negative effect of not soaking is much less than that of a frozen pacifier. Fortunately, when temperatures are this cold, the number of viable germs in the environment is also significantly reduced. Be sure to take extra precautions to prevent animals from having to lie down in wet conditions. Moisture draws heat away from the body and prevents the coat from providing insulation. Most of us can probably understand that being cold and wet is much worse than being cold.

A final indirect negative effect of extreme cold is the possibility of freezing pipes and water tanks. I remember getting a call from a producer whose cow milk production had really gone down. I was aware that the temperature was near zero and asked him if he had checked the water supply. He called back a few minutes later to say that when he went to look he noticed that a lot of cows were standing in front of the waterers, frustrated with the block of ice that was contained in each of them.

Of course, this also applies to pens for dry cows and heifers where the drop in production would not alert us to the problem. During the extremely cold temperatures this winter, remember the phrase “clean, dry and comfortable”. It is especially important to keep animals clean and dry during extremely cold weather. Maintaining adequate energy is also crucial, especially in baby calves.

Charles Gardner of Orefield, Pa., Is a Veterinarian and Director of Business Development at Cargill Animal Nutrition Consulting Services.


Boyd S. Abbott