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Preparing your calves for the winter months

Chelsea Schossow for Progressive Dairy Published on 01 November 2021
Calves in pens

Winter always seems to sneak up on us before we know it. The amount of daylight gets shorter and shorter and the temperature gets colder and colder.

We have a million things on our mind and prepping the calf facility might have fallen to the bottom of the to-do list. Only 33% of dairy producers change their calf-feeding practices during cold months, according to the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System study. Despite this small percentage, it is important to remember that these calves are the future of our milk herd and adjusting throughout the changing seasons can ultimately lead to a healthy herd year-round.



Calves thrive in what is known as the thermoneutral zone (TNZ). This is the range of temperature in which an animal will not use additional energy to maintain body temperature. For newborn calves, the range is 10-25ºC, while for 1-month-old calves, it is 0-25ºC. For every degree below the TNZ, the calf’s energy requirement for maintenance increases by 1%. By prepping calf facilities ahead of time, we can decrease the cold stress our future milk cows will endure. Here are a few areas to focus on:

1. Stock up on bedding: Keeping calves warm and dry has proven to be one of the biggest winter challenges. Calves like to nest, meaning the optimal bedding should be deep enough to completely cover calves’ legs when they are laying down. In addition to an adequate amount of bedding, it is crucial the bedding also is clean and dry.

2. Dig out the calf jackets: Calf jackets help maintain body temperature and keep calves in their TNZ. Check that jackets are clean and the Velcro or clasps work. Replace old ones now before the demand for them increases.

3. Check water access: Keeping fresh water in front of calves helps increase grain intake and overall growth, and no one wants to be thawing out water lines in the winter. For calf barns, make sure water lines are insulated and heaters are working, if you use heated waterers. For hutch calves, it can be useful to have two sets; this way you can rotate, allowing one set to thaw while the other is full of fresh warm water.

4. Check for potential drafts: If calf housing does not block chilly air, calves can stress easily. This stress will decrease their immune system function, making it easier for them to become ill. Air speed over calves in the winter should not be more than 60 feet per minute (0.3 metres per second). Along with drafts, it is important to check overall ventilation. Ammonia buildup increases as we close doors and windows. We need to ensure air exchanges often enough so that air is fresh instead of stagnant.


5. Ensure calves’ diets contain enough calories: As mentioned previously, when calves are below their TNZ, their energy requirement increases. Having a solid nutrition plan in place will ensure calves have enough calories to convert to energy for maintenance and growth. Talk to your nutritionist about potential feeding plans to meet calves’ demands.

We may not know what Mother Nature has in store for us this year, but early preparation can reduce potential challenges that may come up in the cold months ahead. end mark

PHOTO: Changes in temperature signal demands in young calves’ needs for changes to their nutrition and environment. Photo by Jenna Hurty-Person.

Chelsea Schossow
  • Chelsea Schossow

  • Dairy Nutrition and Production Specialist
  • Form-A-Feed
  • Email Chelsea Schossow