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KSU vet discusses hypothermia and offers tips for warming up newborn calves

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Producers across the U.S. are battling extreme winter conditions, and for those with early calving herds, this time of year can be tough on cattle, calves and producers alike. 

            “Adult cows can suffer cold stress, but they are actually pretty robust,” notes Kansas State University (KSU) Veterinarian Dr. A.J. Tarpoff during an episode of KSU’s Agriculture Today podcast, dated Feb. 15. “Cows have a huge, functioning rumen which acts as their core heater during winter months, so it is really calves we have to worry about – the newborn calves especially.” 

Body temperature danger zones

            To begin his discussion, Tarpoff explains when a calf hits the ground their average internal body temperature is between 101 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit. As temperatures fall below the 100-degree mark, calves will begin showing signs of hypothermia.

            “Below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, calves will start to show mild signs of hypothermia,” says Tarpoff. “This is where producers will see calves start to shiver because they are trying to increase the metabolic heat produced by the body.” 

            “Once body temperature drops even lower and hypothermia progresses, the body will begin shunting blood away from the extremities – the skin, legs, ears and tail,” he explains. “They do this to maintain core temperature and keep warm blood flowing to the brain.” 

            As body temperature nears the 95-degree range, Tarpoff says cooling of internal organs begins to take place, and calves will start wandering around and acting differently. 

            “Calves are still viable into the upper 80s, but as soon as body temperature drops to the mid-80s, they are usually comatose,” he states. 

            Tarpoff notes with outside temperatures around zero degrees Fahrenheit and below across most of the western U.S., hypothermia can hit calves quickly and severely.             

“Hypothermia can happen one of to ways – chilling of a wet animal, usually freshly born or later in older calves simply due to the harshness of conditions,” he says. 

Reversing hypothermia in calves

            If and when producers come across hypothermic calves, Tarpoff says there are a few different ways to reverse the situation. His number one recommendation is to take a rectal temperature to gauge the severity of the issue. 

            “The tried and true defroster on the floorboard of the pickup truck is a failsafe and easy way to warm calves on the go,” says Tarpoff, who recommends placing one-half of a cardboard box on the floorboard and bedding it with blankets to create a heat tunnel. 

            Another option, according to Tarpoff, is to use heat lamps, although he cautions producers who choose this route.

            “Heat lamps work great, but they aren’t always a good option,” he states. “When calves get warm, they will stand up and start rooting around. If they are in a barn with hay or dust, they may break the lamp and inadvertently cause a fire.”

            Tarpoff notes some other options include hot boxes, which can be purchased commercially or hand made and warm water baths.

            “Producers need to be extremely cautious when using warm water submersion,” he states. “Don’t use hot water. This practice is only used to get calves back to their normal body temperature, so if they are dropped in too hot of water too quickly, they may get cold shock, which will cause heart failure.” 

            Therefore, he notes the best way to give calves a warm water bath is to gradually build up temperature to a little over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and then continue adding warm water to keep the temperature consistent until the calf is warmed thoroughly.

            “Regardless of the method, producers need to remember the process will take time and be pretty labor intensive,” says Tarpoff. “They need to be prepared and be patient.”

            Hannah Bugas is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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