Challenges with cold weather calving: Early calf nutritional needs

Feb 6, 2020

Allowing a calf to be born in cold weather seems somewhat counterintuitive, so why do producers breed cows to calve at this time of year? Sam Strahan and Dr. Anne Koontz discuss some strategies to minimize cold weather problems including supplementing with products containing Bio-Mos® for better calf health.


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Tom:    I'm Tom Martin, and we're talking today about the challenges of cold weather calving and the nutritional needs of early calves. Joining me in the studio today is Dr. Anne Koontz, research scientist with Alltech, and joining us by phone from Madison, Virginia is Sam Strahan, nutritionist with CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplements. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Sam:    Glad to be here.

Anne:   My pleasure.

Tom:    So, Sam, let's begin with you. Allowing a calf to be born in cold weather seems somewhat counterintuitive, so why do producers breed cows to calve at that time of year?

Sam:    Well, there are many factors that play into this decision, but recognize that in the U.S., about three-quarters of the calves happen to be born in the first six months of the calendar year, so it's pretty prevalent in this country.

RELATED: Preparing for calving season

            The goal on a beef producer's farm is to minimize feed cost, but we also want to supply the highest-quality forage when the cows need it most. This happens to hit around peak lactation time, which is the time of their highest demand. We're typically looking at peak demand being 30 to 60 days after calving. So, we're trying to really hit this peak forage quality at that time.

            Then, the next phase that we enter into is breeding time, which needs to happen within 80 to 85 days after calving, and we want the cows to be on a high plane of nutrition at that point in time. Hopefully they're gaining weight during the period when we're trying to get them bred, and spring forage helps those cows to maintain or improve body condition score at this time, when the energy needs are highest.

            Also, the major consideration is to have the calves meet a certain desired weaning weight by early fall, so they need to be born fairly early in the year. The sacrifice then is to have calving occur when the weather may still be a bit challenging outside.

Tom:    What are some of the negative challenges with calving in cold weather?

Sam:    Well, if we consider that a mother's body is going to be 101 to 102 degrees [Fahrenheit] and then, all of a sudden, this calf is born into an environment that could be 100 degrees or more below that point, dropping into an outside temperature that could be zero or below in the northern latitudes, that's a pretty significant shock to this newborn calf.

            Now, we expect the mama cow to clean her calf and encourage them to get up and nurse, but severe cold weather can chill the calf before it’s able to actually get up and start nursing. We can also have challenges with certain young, inexperienced mothers that just may not have the mothering instinct right off the bat when they're first having these calves.

            A calf is typically born with what we call brown adipose tissue, which is a type of fat [that’s] burned internally to offer heat to the calf, but there's a certain limited supply of this type of fat, and it can be overwhelmed with excessive cold. If that body happens to get chilled, then blood is going to be focused away from the extremities, which could lead to an opportunity for frostbite of those extremities, such as the ears, tail and feet.

            Now, a chilled calf, also, is going to be more susceptible to pneumonia [and] such things as scours, [or] even navel infections. So, certain negative things could happen there if that calf gets chilled, but the largest concern we're going to have is that the calf might not be able to nurse soon after birth since colostrum is going to contain antibodies developed by the mother to fight pathogens. We certainly don't want to limit the amount of colostrum that that calf can get, as it could compromise future health of the newborn.

Tom:    What are some strategies producers can use to minimize cold weather problems?

Sam:    Well, if we have cattle out on range then we'd like to have some things such as windbreaks, where the cow could find some protection. Best of all [would be] if this was facing south so that the sun could bring some warmth to that area. This would also be the area where we would encourage supplements to be fed so that cows could get out of the wind and be more likely to take in the supplements that we're providing.

            Another thing we could do is provide some bedding where the calving is going to be going on, which would allow the calf to lay in some sort of protection from the wet or cold surfaces and also have something that its newborn could burrow into for protection from the cold.

            Now, another recommendation would be to separate the younger cows — first and second calvers — so that a manager would be there to watch more closely and assist any of those that might need it. This would also allow these groups to be fed a higher plane of nutrition, both pre- and post-calving.

            Now, another thing we know is that research has shown us, cows fed close to dusk or later in the day have a much higher calving rate during daylight hours than cattle that are fed early in the day. This approach — feeding closer to dusk — could allow a greater chance for cattle to be observed by managers around calving and again assist, if that is needed.

            Now, in advance of cold weather, we also want to make sure the herd has been treated for lice so that parasites aren't robbing the calves of nutrients. Likewise, we want the nutrition program to be adequate well ahead of calving so that our cows are going to be calving at least in a body condition of five or six, since this will help avoid nutritional problems that lead to poor colostrum quality and quantity as well.

            We'd also like to see the same thing with the vaccination programs and that they're administered in advance of calving so that the cow can have good-quality colostrum to provide for her calf.

Tom:    Sam, nutrition of both cow and calf is obviously extremely important with challenging outside conditions. What extra needs occur as a result of cold weather?

Sam:    Well, as producers, we want to be aware of what the lower critical temperature is. We define the lower critical temperature as the temperature required by the cow to burn extra energy just to stay warm. We know that energy and protein requirements automatically increase with the onset of milk production, but as we get into this lower critical temperature area, the energy needs go up about 1% for every degree below this lower critical temperature.

            So, if we're looking at such things as temperatures at zero, we're going to estimate the energy need is going to increase about 20%. Our cow will self-adjust her forage intake to help meet these added energy needs, but if we're dealing with some poor-quality hay, there could be a problem with gut fill, and she won't be able to eat as much as needed to meet these energy needs.

            Our recommendation would be to reserve your best hay for these lactating cows that have a higher nutritional need because, if milk production is limited, there may not be enough there to sustain good calf development. Like the cow, the calf is also going to consume more milk to meet his or her energy needs, so it's very important that the cow is able to meet the milk volume needed to sustain that growth.

            Now, proper supplementation of a protein and energy supplemental will help balance the diet so that milk production is not limited. Also, cows are going to receive some of the vital micronutrients such as trace minerals and vitamins needed to help sustain good health.

Tom:    Specifically, what role can CRYSTALYX supplementation play in the nutrition of cattle during cold weather conditions around calving?

Sam:    Really, in a lot of cases, we're looking at protein supplementation, which is going to help balance the needs that the forage may not provide, especially at the onset of lactation. In addition to this protein supplement, we've got a combination of sugars to help improve the forage digestibility, which is going the help meet those higher nutritional demands.

            Such things as minerals — the ones that we’re especially concerned with are selenium, zinc and copper — and vitamins in the supplements are going to enhance better health and boost immune function. Some of our products contain organic trace minerals [such as] Bioplex®, which is absorbed more readily by the cattle, and therefore is going to improve those things I mentioned in terms of better health.

            Recently, we introduced a new hybrid block form called CrystalBlox™, which allows for a higher intake for groups that might need extra levels of supplementation for protein, energy and some of the microbes. In some cases, I would be referring such things to our first calving group as they may need a little extra nutrition.  In addition, some Blueprint® options are included, which means we're putting all organic trace minerals in there and replacing the inorganics.

            Now, a final option that we have would be some products that contain Bio-Mos® to help support better gut health and immune response to some of the outside challenges. Dr. Anne Koontz from Alltech is here to expand on how Bio-Mos works.

Tom:    Okay, Dr. Koontz, let's bring you into this conversation. When is the best time to implement strategies to support spring calving?

Anne:   So, it's really earlier than a lot of producers or, especially people outside of agriculture, would expect. Influencing long-term calf health and performance begins before birth and very much begins with what you are feeding to the dam of that animal. There's quite a bit of research, not just in the cattle industry, but across a lot of species, including humans, showing that poor nutrition during gestation negatively affects calf growth and also negatively affects how that calf will respond to stress and health challenges throughout their life.

            The opposite of that is also true. Good nutrition allows them to have a strong response and stronger health and better growth throughout their life. It's not just in the performance, since dam nutrition does affect colostrum. Quality colostrum has got to have lots of high concentrations of internal antibodies and Igs, and all of those things. Having those in the colostrum is very important to calf health and, as Sam mentioned, making sure we have good, maternal health means we have good-quality colostrum and higher levels of antibodies.

Tom:    How can establishing gut health help calf health?

Anne:   This is something that often gets overlooked when we're talking about calf health. Because the transfer of immune antibodies cannot go across the placenta in cattle, all of those antibodies and immunoglobulins that are coming from the cow have to come through the colostrum in the milk.

            Ultimately, the way we look at it with calves is we talk about 70% of the calf's immune system being within the gut and needing to strengthen that gut to prevent transfer of bacteria and viruses and things from the feed and from the milk and the environment. So, it isn't always at the top of a producer's priority list to talk about gut health and calf immunity, but it really is important, especially when we talk about [how] the number one cause of calf mortality is scours.

            The USDA actually cites that 61% of calfhood sicknesses are due to scours. That scours is the result of inflammation in the intestinal tract, which occurs when pathogenic bacteria attach to the lining of the gut and colonize the villi and damage their ability to do their job of absorbing nutrients and preventing pathogen transfer across that gut wall. So, it's really important to have proper nutrition for the cow and the calf because you're strengthening that gut wall and you're preventing that attack of those pathogenic bacteria.

Tom:    What supplements exist to address gut health?

Anne:   An easy way to influence good gut health is through the supplementation of prebiotics, and the one that we tend to talk about is Bio-Mos and similar products of that nature. These products promote beneficial bacteria and support immune function.

            Now, Bio-Mos itself is the outer cell wall portion of a specific strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. If you think about a yeast cell as being an orange, Bio-Mos is made from the orange part of the peel. We pull the peel off of the orange yeast cell, and we separate the white part and the orange part, and Bio-Mos is made from that orange portion.

            This portion of the yeast's outer cell wall contains mannan oligosaccharides, which is where you get the name MOS — it's just a little abbreviation — and Bio-Mos being pulled from that specific strain of yeast is very much selected to support gut health and overall performance. We have quite a bit of research showing that the Bio-Mos supports the healthy microbial population and stimulates the calf's ability to use natural defense.

Tom:    What are the benefits of Bio-Mos supplementation in the cow-calf sector?

Anne:   Bio-Mos as a whole has more than 20 years of research. It's one of Alltech's very first products, and there are more than 700 published trials on Bio-Mos, across a variety of species. I was actually looking into some research last week and found that, not only do we have Bio-Mos research in all of your production agriculture species, but we have [research in] humans, rats, dogs and cats and, interestingly enough, parrots, which I found quite [fascinating].

            Across all of these trials, we see the same response regardless of species, and that's a stimulation of immune activity, a mitigation of those pathogenic bacteria's ability to colonize the intestine which is ultimately an alteration of the intestinal microbiome away from pathogenic bacteria and towards beneficial ones. And, interestingly enough, when it's fed to the dam prior to calving, Bio-Mos actually supports the transfer of immunity to the calf.

            We've got some really interesting studies that show that Bio-Mos supplementation improves the production of colostrum and milk immunoglobulins and that, if you feed Bio-Mos to gestating cows, in addition to getting good pre-calving vaccination programs, as Sam mentioned, the dams actually have the ability to transfer a higher level of antibody titers to their calves, so these calves have a stronger immune response to some of those environmental pathogens that they might be exposed to, even without getting those vaccines themselves. That's quite interesting and quite beneficial. All of this tied together ultimately leads to reductions in calf morbidity and mortality, which allows them to have better growth and performance.

Tom:    What is the recommended feeding of Bio-Mos if a producer wants to influence herd health?

Anne:   The key thing to remember is that Bio-Mos is not a treatment. Bio-Mos is best used as a preventative so that you're really strengthening that gut wall so that when it does have an immune system challenge, it's ready to react to that. So, what we generally recommend is to start feeding Bio-Mos about a month prior to calving and continuing for a month after the last calf is born. Additionally, if you're keeping those calves and weaning them on the ranch prior to shipping, we recommend making Bio-Mos available through a transition mineral like CRYSTALYX for about two to three weeks prior to weaning through the first 14 days of weaning.

Tom:    All right, let's go back to you, Sam. If you could tell us, where could producers go to learn more about specific CRYSTALYX products that contain Bio-Mos to help calves get off to a healthy start this calving season?

Sam:    Sure. The first resource, of course, would be the local dealer to go to for more information, since they can explain what products they might carry locally. Certainly, we see some differences in products in dealers’ stores across the U.S. and Canada. They're also going to be a good source for brochures, flyers and just general information.

            Also, we recommend taking a look at our website, which is There you can find a dealer locator to see who might be the most local dealer for you to visit. We've got timely blog information. We've got podcasts like we're doing here, testimonials and a good bit of product information, so, [the website is] an excellent source to find the information you might need.

Tom:    That's Sam Strahan, nutritionist with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements. He joined us from Madison, Virginia. And, here in the studio, Dr. Anne Koontz, research scientist with Alltech. Thanks to both of you.

Anne:   Thank you for having me.

Sam:    Thank you, Tom. Appreciate it.