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Cold-stressed Calves Ate More Starter, Kept Growing

Posted: February 10, 2010

Research published in the December issue of the Journal of Dairy Science evaluated the effects of cold stress on calf growth, health, and immunity.

Research published in the December issue of the Journal of Dairy Science evaluated the effects of cold stress on calf growth, health, and immunity. Dr. Brian Nonnecke and colleagues housed 29 calves indoors in elevated stalls at either cold (40°F) or warm (60°F) temperatures for 7 weeks. Calves were 3 to 10 days old, weighed 100 pounds, and had adequate passive immunity at the start of the trial. Cold housing was unheated and water was applied to calves (hair coat was saturated) and pens twice daily to maximize the impact of cold temperatures. Humidity in the warm environment was not manipulated, but temperature was controlled by thermostat. Relative humidity was about 10% higher in the cold environment than the warm. Calves were fed one pound per day of a non-medicated, 20% protein, 20% fat milk replacer and offered free-choice starter with 18% protein.

Temperature of the cold environment fluctuated with the weather and ranged from 34 to 51°F. Heating provided a more stable temperature of 56 to 62°F in the warm environment. Cold environment calves experienced more respiratory illness than warm environment calves during weeks 3 and 6. No difference was seen in scouring or electrolyte treatment. Growth rates were not affected by the housing temperature, but cold environment calves ate 0.5 to 0.6 pounds more grain each day during weeks 5 to 7 than warm environment calves. Neither group of calves gained much weight in the first 14 days of the study; average daily gain over 49 days was about 1 pound per day. Measures of immunity were not affected by environmental temperature. Researchers also noticed that cold environment calves developed thicker hair coats during the first week of the experiment. This demonstrated rapid adaptation and provided extra insulation that reduced the amount of energy used to maintain body temperature.

These results indicate that when calves receive adequate nutrition, they can tolerate considerable periods of cold without affecting growth. Some of the keys to helping calves continue growing in cold weather are providing fresh, free-choice starter and clean, unfrozen water, keeping them dry, and avoiding drafts.

Coleen Jones, Research Associate, and Jud Heinrichs, Professor of Dairy and Animal Science, Department of Dairy and Animal Science