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Management

England: Calves can be warmed if born during severe storms and cold weather

Sometimes calves are born during severe storms or cold weather and become immediately chilled after birth. There are several ways to safely warm them, and the methods producers choose will generally depend on their facilities and available choices.

James England, veterinarian with the University of Idaho Caine Center, says in many cases the first option might be to put a cold calf on the floor of a pickup with the heater running – if it is found out in a big pasture a long ways from the barn or an electricity source. 

Warming up

“The main thing is to try to get it dried off and warm up its feet and legs. In many instances we don’t have hot water available to apply to cold limbs,” he says. “I generally use warm air and try to get the calf dry. If its feet are cold, we know it is chilled, and we have to get the whole body warm.”

There are some calf-warming boxes producers can buy, but they require electricity. Sometimes the calf is too far from an electricity source and all ranchers have is a pickup, he says. 

Breathing warm air, whether in a warming box or on the floor of the pickup next to the heater, can help warm a calf quickly. 

“Warming the lungs helps warm the body core, which is just as important as warming the extremities,” he says.

Food source

“The key to warming a calf is that as soon as possible, the rancher should get some warm milk into it – even if they have to tube it if the calf is too cold to suck a bottle. This will give the calf energy to create body heat,” explains England. “A calf only has about two hours worth of stored energy in terms of brown fat and what was left in the stomach from amniotic fluid.” 

When those stores are used up, the calf will quickly go downhill and won’t be able to keep warm enough to sustain life in cold weather. 

If the producer can get energy into the calf, it will warm up and be able to generate body heat, he continued. 

Colostrum is the best thing to feed calves because it is easy to digest and contains twice the fat energy of regular milk.

Environment

“The main thing is to get the calf up off the snow if the rancher can, onto some straw or something dry where the cow can lick it dry and take care of it,” England notes. “If the calf is non-responsive, I take it straight to the pickup.”

He continues, “I knew one rancher who had a warming box on the front of his four-wheeler. He had a little 12-volt heater in it, with warm air blowing on the calf while it’s being hauled to the barn.”

If producers can get the calf indoors in a warm place, they can use warm water to help thaw out cold, freezing extremities – including feet, ears and tail – but if the calf is still outdoors, it’s counterproductive to use hot water. 

“We are losing ground if we keep the calf wet. We want to get it dry. Often it’s better to use warm dry air and try to get some food into it,” says England.

Hot water bottles wrapped in towels or electric blankets can also be helpful for a calf that’s just chilled and not frozen. 

“I’ve seen some warming stalls that have electric blankets for the calves. A warm blanket, rubbing and stimulation can help increase body circulation,” he says.

Mothering concerns

The problem is compounded if the calf didn’t get licked dry. 

If either the cow couldn’t get up and lick it or didn’t have any interest in the calf, the calf continues to stay wet and get colder, England comments. These calves may freeze to death. 

Some years the weather may be so cold that even a well-mothered calf may freeze if the calf is born outdoors with no shelter. 

“Our only hope for saving the calf is finding it in time to warm it up,” he comments. “Ears and tails may be frozen and eventually slough off, but we can save the calf if we can get his core body temperature back up to normal.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


SIDEBAR:
Frostbite

If body tissues become too cold, ice crystals form inside the cell membranes, and the cells rupture, killing the tissues. 

If only the superficial skin layers are killed, they become discolored and then slough away, like a superficial burn peeling. 

Damage to deeper layers and to small blood vessels near the surface may lead to more extensive tissue death. If the legs, tail and ears are completely frozen, the calf may eventually lose its ears, tail or even its feet. 

Pricking the frozen extremity with a pin or needle to see if there is any blood supply or any sensation or feeling in the tissues can be a clue as to whether the tissue has a chance to return to proper function.

If the skin is actually frozen, it’s not advisable to rub the cold extremities too vigorously, since this may further injure the damaged skin. 

If the tissue has not completely died, the frozen area may become swollen as blood returns to the area, due to direct injury to the blood vessels and impairment of fluid movement in and out of the tissues.