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Cuddling your calves with care: The first 24 hours

Jodi Wallace for Progressive Dairy Published on 16 July 2021

Keeping calves clean, warm and dry is essential to maintain their health and productivity. From the moment the calf is born, what are the best steps to get the calf from wet and gunky to clean, warm and dry?

The cow’s natural instinct is to lick it clean. This helps stimulate the calf and clean its hair coat. But then what? Consider using these tools in your calf health management program: a cuddle box, transporter, incubator and coats.



The cuddle box

This is an idea that was developed and commercialized in the Netherlands. It’s a system where the calf is immediately placed in a box. This box is a safe, clean and draft-free space where the dam can easily lick and clean the calf. Not only does this keep the calf safe while it bonds with its mother, but it reduces the spread of contagious diseases such as Johne’s.

There are many different versions of the cuddle box seen on farms. They can be stationary or mobile and can be secured to headlocks – the calf will be safe there while its dam licks it clean. While the cow is secured and tending to the calf, this is the optimal time to harvest colostrum.

Photo 1 shows the cuddle box at Silverstream Holsteins (my home farm). Here, the cow can eat and lick her calf at the same time.

A cuddle box

At the same time, the cow is milked. In warmer weather, the calf may even be fed in the cuddle box, which is also mobile. Once the calf is cleaned, the sides pull up and the cart is pushed to the calf barn. There, the calf is placed in the incubator room to dry off. The calf stays there just a few hours. The room is 28ºC and the hair coat dries quickly. In cooler weather, the calf is fed colostrum in the incubator room. Both male and female calves receive the same treatment.


Calf movers

Transporting calves from the calving area to the calf area is a step often overlooked. Calves need to be moved in a hygienic and stress-free manner. There are many commercial options available to move calves: calf carts, sleds, skid-steer-mounted boxes and even old vans. Use the system that will adapt the best to your situation. Remember to keep the calf mover clean and disinfected. This reduces the risk of the calf inadvertently ingesting disease-causing pathogens.


Newborn incubators are another tool to quickly warm and dry the calf (see Photo 2). Dry hair traps air, creating a natural insulation to help the calf start off right. Incubators can be commercially purchased or made on-farm. Even a deep straw pack with a heat lamp will help dry the calf.

The incubator

Calf coats

When do calves need coats? The actual temperature of the calf will depend on multiple factors including wind speed, relative humidity, hair coat, sunlight, bedding and rumination. A good rule of thumb is: When it’s below 10ºC, cover them up with a calf coat.

When the temperature drops, calves require more energy for maintenance and growth. Calves will use their own fat reserves for energy if the extra energy is not supplied. Newborns have low brown fat reserves (1% to 3% of bodyweight for a 45-kilogram calf). Brown fat is a rapid energy source used to keep calves warm. Once the fat deposits are used up, the calf starts to break down muscle for energy and heat production. In addition, cold-stressed calves will divert energy away from digestion. Consequently, there is decreased fluid absorption, less energy for growth, resulting in reduced average daily gains (ADG). Calves will lose weight and have a weakened immune system. This will make them more susceptible to diarrhea and pneumonia.

Here are some points to consider with calf coats (Photos 3 and 4):


Calf coats

Calves in their coats

  • Dry: The calf’s hair coat must be dry before fitting the coat. For newborns, make sure the hair coat is dry to the touch. Once the coat is on, verify that the calf is not sweating or that the coat hasn’t gotten wet from rain or snow. If so, remove or replace the coat. Choose a coat that is water-resistant and breathable.

  • Adjust: Coats are not one-size-fits-all. Coats should fit snugly and cover from shoulder to rump. Coats range in size from XS to XXL. Be sure to adjust straps as the calf grows to make it a comfortable fit.

  • Clean: Make sure coats are clean. Coats need to be disinfected and washed. Soiled coats can be a source of infection for diarrhea pathogens (bacterial, viral and protozoal), especially if they are moved from calf to calf. Cleaning is key to killing these pathogens. Cryptosporidium is the most fastidious pathogen. To kill crypto oocysts, coats must be disinfected and washed. Coats can be disinfected with chlorine dioxide, which is a product known to kill crypto oocysts, and then washed in a commercial washer with water over 60ºC. Coats can go into a dryer or hang to dry. Ensure coats are completely dry before placing them on the calves.

Calf coats work great to combat cold stress, but they need to be combined with proper bedding, ventilation and increased energy at feeding. Ensure that calves have enough bedding to keep them warm and dry. Calves lose heat by conduction. That means heat is transferred down through the bedding. Cold concrete, gravel and sand increase conduction losses. The best bedding for calves outside in hutches is wood shavings covered with straw. Calves lie down a lot – newborn calves will spend approximately 80% of their time lying down and 6-week-old calves will spend 75%. That translates into upwards of 19 hours lying down per day.

Calves should be able to “nest” in the bedding, which helps reduce heat loss. The legs of the calf should be covered by the bedding when lying down (nesting score 3). At a score of 2, the calf is nestled slightly into bedding and part of the legs are visible above bedding. Calf coats can increase the nesting score by 1.

Coats will not protect calves from cold drafts. Indoor barns need to be properly ventilated. With outdoor housing, calves need to be protected from the wind.

As the temperature drops, calves need more calories to maintain the same growth. Calves will need more milk – it’s best to increase the milk volume and not change the concentration. Adding a mid-day feeding can help to increase the energy intake. Calves should also have access to fresh starter and water daily. If calves are outside in extreme weather, water should be offered at least three times a day for a minimum of 30 minutes. Research has shown calves that have free-choice water versus no water have a 45% increase in starter intake and a 60% increase in weight gain in the first four weeks of life. Starter intake is important because it increases rumen development. A functional rumen is a fermentation vat that produces heat and helps to keep the calf warm. In addition, starter intake helps meet the energy requirements in cold weather. Even calves 1 week old should be offered a small amount of calf starter.

The colder it gets, the more energy a calf needs to maintain heat, stay healthy and keep growing. Keeping calves clean and dry protects them from cold stress caused by extreme weather and daily environmental variations. Consider the cuddle box, a calf transporter, incubators and calf coats as the value-added services to your current calf care management protocols within the first 24 hours. Extras that keep the calf clean, warm and dry are the key to health, productivity and future success of your calves. end mark

PHOTO 1: A cuddle box and calf transporter function as two tools in one.

PHOTO 2: The incubator at Silverstream Holsteins is a warm 4-by-4-foot room for newborn calves.

PHOTOS 3 & 4: Calf coats must be adjusted as the calf grows to make it a comfortable fit. Photos by Jodi Wallace.

Jodi Wallace
  • Jodi Wallace

  • Veterinarian
  • Ormstown Veterinary Hospital
  • Silverstream Holsteins
  • Email Jodi Wallace