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8 tips to avoid losing calves in the winter

By Susan Hurt

Winter in Kentucky usually brings cold and unpredictable weather. It is an especially critical time for farmers with new livestock being born; however, calving can be challenging due to snow, ice and cold. Cold temperatures during late February and early March are slowly on the rise, but inclement weather is always a possibility and the economic value of saving those calves being born on a cold winter’s night is crucial. Feeder calf prices hold great gains for this fall, so a saved calf could be worth well over $1,000 later on.
Calves can succumb to hypothermia in as little as 30 minutes, but farmers have a number of resources to protect newborns from frostbite and hypothermia, which can lead to death. New calves can survive harsh winter weather, but several things need to happen to ensure the calf is ready for the cold. Dr. Todd Freeman discusses how, with appropriate management, these losses can be avoided.

  1. Provide adequate nutrition for the herd. A cow’s nutritional requirements increase greatly as she prepares to calve and through early lactation. An average sized cow needs 25-30 lbs. of good quality hay per day.
  2. As the calving season begins, be prepared with all necessary facilities and equipment. A cow not making progress delivering a calf after 45 minutes to an hour is likely going to need assistance to deliver a live calf. Heifers usually take a little longer.
  3. To survive, a calf must receive adequate colostrum (first milk) within 12-24 hours of birth. Be prepared to milk the cow and feed the calf if necessary. Momma’s milk is best, but commercial colostrum replacer is OK as a last resort.
  4. Livestock are very tolerant of cold weather, but need shelter or windbreaks as the temperature drops below 30 degrees.
  5. Beware of ice hazards with frozen ponds. Fence off areas as necessary to prevent livestock from falling through the ice.
  6. Keep records of calving dates, death losses, etc. Cull any cows not raising a calf, so that more resources can be allocated to the productive members of the herd.
  7. Provide a high-quality, free-choice mineral to the cows to prevent grass tetany (low magnesium) and other health problems.
  8. Start preparing now for the upcoming breeding season.

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