The extreme cold and snowy weather has arrived at a very unfortunate time for spring calving cow herds. Cows and heifers are beginning the calving season and some newborn calves are certain to be cold stressed after arrival. Getting those cold stressed calves back to normal body temperatures as soon as possible will save the lives of some calves and increase the vigor of others.
Several years ago, an Oklahoma rancher called to tell of the success he had noticed in using a warm water bath to revive new born calves that had been severely cold stressed. A quick check of the scientific data on that subject bears out his observation.
Canadian animal scientists compared methods of reviving hypothermic or cold stressed baby calves. Heat production and rectal temperature were measured in 19 newborn calves during hypothermia (cold stress) and recovery when four different means of assistance were provided. Hypothermia of 86 degrees F. rectal temperature was induced by immersion in cold water. Calves were re-warmed in a 68 to 77 degrees F. air environment where thermal assistance was provided by added thermal insulation or by supplemental heat from infrared lamps. Other calves were re-warmed by immersion in warm water (100 degrees F.), with or without a 40cc drench of 20% ethanol in water. Normal rectal temperatures for baby calves without cold stress should be about 103 degrees F.
The time required to regain normal body temperature from a rectal temperature of 86 degrees F. was longer for calves with added insulation and those exposed to heat lamps than for the calves in the warm water and warm water plus ethanol treatments (90 minutes and 92 minutes vs 59 minutes and 63 minutes, respectively). During recovery, the calves re-warmed with the added insulation and heat lamps used up more body energy metabolically than the calves re-warmed in warm water. This represents energy that is lost from the calf’s body that cannot be utilized for other important biological processes. Total heat production (energy lost) during recovery was nearly twice as great for the calves with added insulation, or exposed to the heat lamps than for calves in warm water and in warm water plus an oral drench of ethanol, respectively. By immersion of hypothermic calves in warm (100 degrees F) water, normal body temperature was regained most rapidly and with minimal metabolic effort. No advantage was evident from oral administration of ethanol. (Source: Robinson and Young. Univ. of Alberta. J. Anim. Sci., 1988.)
When immersing these baby calves, do not forget to support the head above the water to avoid drowning the calf that you are trying to save. Also it is important to dry the hair coat before the calf is returned to cold winter air. If the calf does not nurse the cow within the first few hours of life (6 or less), then tube feeding of a colostrum replacer will be necessary to allow the calf to achieve passive immunity by consuming the immunoglobulins in the colostrum replacer.
Not every calf born in cold weather needs the warm water bath. Most will survive if moved to an enclosed barn or calving shed with adequate bedding or insulation such as heavy blankets. Be careful if heat lamps are used and be certain that straw bedding cannot be set on fire. The warm water bath described above is apparently a method that can save a few severely stressed calves that would be less likely to survive or be weakened if more conventional re-warming methods are used. With 2021 input costs, saving every calf is important to the bottom line.
Extended winter storm impacts cattle, cowboys and markets
A massive and extended winter blast has engulfed the southern plains before spreading across much of the Delta and mid-south then ultimately affecting most of the eastern half of the country. The extended cold temperatures began a week ago with most of Oklahoma already enduring continuous sub-freezing temperatures for 150 to over 200 hours as of Monday morning (February 15). Temperatures in early week are reaching record sub-zero levels with wind chill values of -25 to -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures are expected to remain below freezing for at least another 100 hours. Snow totals of four to ten inches have accumulated with more snow expected mid-week. This storm is unprecedented in Oklahoma due to both the record cold temperatures and the duration of cold. I’m having flashbacks to my formative years caring for cattle in Montana winters.
The brunt of the storm impacts are directly borne by cattle producers who are struggling to provide water and feed access for cattle. These conditions require near continuous efforts to chop ice and provide feed. Cattle nutritional requirements are sharply boosted in this weather and producers must consider both the quantity and quality of feed. Cattle will not be physically able to consume enough medium to low quality hay to provide sufficient energy in these conditions and must receive additional supplement or high quality hay. In some cases, deep snow may prevent cattle from accessing standing forage, especially since Oklahoma cattle are not used to foraging through snow.
If there is a silver lining in this storm, it is that conditions are cold but relatively dry. The snow that has fallen has not, for the most part, penetrated the hair coat of cattle keeping the hide dry. With adequate feed and water, cattle can handle this type of cold weather relatively well. These conditions are more typical of the central and northern plains and Rocky Mountain areas. Areas south and east of Oklahoma are receiving rain and ice ahead of snow, producing more dangerous hypothermia conditions typical of winter storms in the south.
This storm is likely ahead of most calving in Oklahoma but if calving is in progress, the extreme cold is a significant risk. Newborn calves can experience frozen ears and tails, marking them for life as a cold weather survivor. These calves are frequently discounted at marketing due to buyer fears of foot damage and other injuries that may impact the calves later in life. Once calves are dry and feeding they can endure the cold, dry weather pretty well and may, in fact, be insulated by dry fluffy snow when bedded down.
Several auction markets in Oklahoma and other areas closed last week and many will be closed this week. Oklahoma feeder cattle prices dropped three to ten percent last week with lower demand more than offsetting sharply reduced sales volumes. Wheat pasture cattle and other stockers are no doubt experiencing reduced gains or even weight loss in these conditions. Many cattle grazing dual-purpose wheat will need to be removed and marketed in the next two to three weeks, very likely a bit lighter in weight than expected.
Feedlot cattle are no doubt impacted as well and the market effects will be apparent over time. Reduced performance will show up as lower carcass weights in the coming weeks. The residual impacts of this historic weather event will likely effect cattle markets for several weeks.
Extension Corner is written by Payne County Extension educators Nathan Anderson, Agriculture, Dea Rash, FCS, Keith Reed, Horticulture and Summer Leister, 4-H.