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Posted: 12/12/2023
Two beef calves standing in the cold snow

Bringing the Heat: The Importance of Preventing Frostbite in Calves

Alright stop, collaborate and listen.

If you recognized that lyric from the 90s rap song "Ice Ice Baby," congratulations. While the catchy tune is definitely not about ice cold calves, it certainly helps us catch your attention about a serious issue that can harm the youngest in your herd this winter: Frostbite.

Before the most brutal winter weather sets in, now is the time to stop what you're doing; collaborate and strategize prevention measures with your management team; and listen to the weather forecasts – as well as the signs from your animals.

Prevention is key, because once a calf experiences severe frostbite in its hind feet, it will not recover. If you've got a problem, NOW is the time to solve it. Luckily, PBS Animal Health is here to help by discussing how frostbite happens, how to tell if a calf has it, and how to prevent it altogether.

Dairy calf with cold snow on its face and ears

What is Frostbite and How Does it Occur?

Frostbite happens when bodily tissues become damaged after freezing. Extremities like ears, feet and tails are most at risk, as well as teats on dams who've recently calved. Of the entire herd, frostbite is the biggest threat to newborn calves. Older cows are better able to respond to the cold, but newborns are wet from birth and their little bodies have to work much harder to maintain necessary temperatures in the early hours afterward. With a lower body mass, and less fat as insulation, they chill much quicker than adult cows.

Environmental elements can certainly kick up the risk for frostbite as well. Temperature alone is one thing, but don't forget the wind chill: that's what the body actually feels, and it's often far colder than what's on the thermometer. Newborn calves without protection from the elements – especially if they lay on snow or otherwise cold ground conditions – will lose body temperature quickly. Wet conditions certainly expedite that process, but don't underestimate a dry, cold pasture.

Physical and Behavioral Signs of Frostbite

Sometimes it can be a challenge to detect frostbite in newborn calves, but remember to start with the extremities. As we mentioned above, frostbite usually starts by affecting ears, tails and back feet, but also check their nose for signs of early onset. Coldness and stiffness are the major indicators, but back hooves may also look swollen.

Behaviorally, you will probably notice distress or discomfort (particularly when the legs are impacted). Cold calves may show less overall movement or appear less coordinated in their movement. Extended shivering, with some irritability and even less interest in feeding are all possible signs of cold stress, too.

What is a Normal Body Temperature for a Calf?

Calves less than 48 hours old (or otherwise sick newborns) have the greatest chance of experiencing hypothermia. It's when the core body temperature drops below its normal range (approximately 100°F for beef calves and 101.5°F for dairy calves). In more severe cases where the core temp drops down under 94°F, vital organs start to chill.

When you need to bring a calf's body temperature up, grab a hair dryer, heat lamp or an electric blanket. Though they are fairly simple approaches, they can make a big difference to these babies. Warm baths can be helpful, too, but if you can't get a tub, consider rubbing warm water on the frostbitten areas to promote blood flow and stimulate circulation.

What Does a Dehydrated Calf Look Like?

Dehydrated calves get frostbitten faster than healthy calves. That's why it's extra important to pay close attention to scouring newborns. If they become dehydrated, those extremities get poor circulation, leading to faster frostbite. You'll know a newborn calf is dehydrated if it has sunken eyes or tucked in skin (usually this lasts for a few seconds). Often, their pulse is abnormal and they need encouragement to stand and/or drink. Remember, always consult with your veterinarian for specific diagnoses and treatment recommendations. Early detection of dehydration and frostbite are key, so don't wait on the fence to make that call.

Calf weraing a jakcet, and a calf wearing the Kalf Kozie

Prevent Frostbite From Hurting Your Animals

Frostbite can certainly pose an extra problem for producers during what is already a critical and busy calving time. But preparation is the name of the game for keeping that "bite" at bay.

First and foremost: if the weather creates risky calving conditions, be prepared. Keep a close eye on the newborn calves and check for cold ears and feet regularly so you can intervene immediately if needed. Provide housing and fresh, dry bedding to keep calves off the cold ground and give them the best chance to maintain body temperature. If housing is not an option, windbreaks are also helpful for protection against frigid wind chill.

If the animals venture out of the facility, you can work to keep them warm with a variety of cold-weather supplies like calf blankets, ear muffs, hoods and coats. The Kalf Kozie Calf Hood is excellent for protecting those precarious ears against the early stages of frostbite. Not only is it easy to put on and take off, this hood also allows for normal calf movement and positioning of ears to avoid sores and sweaty ears.

Colostrum (first milk) is also key for young calves as it contains extra fat compared to regular milk. This helps them generate energy and maintain the heat they need in these early hours. If the dam isn't producing enough high-quality colostrum, be ready to come to the rescue with calf colostrum and milk replacers. The USDA says that the first colostrum is especially vital for calves, so when they can't get it naturally, producers must step in within 24 hours of birth. Products like Calf's Choice and Ultra Start offer the missing link calves need to thrive.

Finally, when a boost of hydration is in order, try Electrolytes + from Sav-A-Caf. If the newborn isn't drinking enough water, this concentrated nutritional supplement helps support hydration and digestive health. It's safe for calves as well as foals, lambs, goat kids, piglets, llamas and more species.

Avoid Painful Frostbite for Calves with PBS Animal Health

These little animals face a big risk this winter with frostbite, hypothermia and dehydration. Protect your calves and your investment. Shop PBS Animal Health for all the cold-weather supplies and colostrum/milk replacers you need to win with your calves this winter.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this article, and all other articles by pbsanimalhealth is for informational purposes only. This article may have been prepared from multiple sources at the time it was written and is not intended to be used as a sole source of information in making any purchase or specific product use decision. We recommend you always consult with your attending veterinarian to properly diagnose any health-related condition before initiating any prevention or treatment program. Always read and follow each product’s current label instructions and Warnings before use.

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