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Experts discuss strategies for managing hypothermic calves

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The beginning of March marks calving season for many producers – whether they are just starting to see babies hit the ground or they are in the full swing of things. This winter has been especially tough on producers and livestock alike, and it will prove incredibly difficult as operations welcome newborn calves.

Below-zero temperatures, drifting snow and driving wind will make it much easier for calves to succumb to hypothermia, and because of this, experts are reminding producers of ways they can prepare for, intervene and treat hypothermic calves. 

Levels of hypothermia

During a Kansas State University (KSU) Beef Cattle Institute (BCI) Ask the Experts segment on the KSU Agriculture Today podcast, aired on Feb. 15, Host Samantha Bennett sits down with Veterinarian and BCI Director Dr. Brad White, along with KSU Veterinarians Dr. Brian Lubbers and Dr. Bob Larson to discuss levels of hypothermia, preparing for hypothermia and when to intervene if producers suspect hypothermia in their calves.  

To begin, Lubbers notes because there are various levels of hypothermia, producers’ response to dealing with hypothermic calves will be different on a case-by-case basis. 

“The response depends on how severe the hypothermia is, but regardless, it’s best to intervene early,” he says. “If it’s a mild case, producers should get the calf inside and warmed up. If it’s severe, producers will need to partake in a more extreme response.” 

On the other hand, Larson explains it’s important to identify which calves are most at risk. He notes calves at greater risk of becoming hypothermic are typically those in their first 24 to 48 hours of life. 

He further notes it’s important to identify how many calves may be impacted by severe wet and cold weather conditions. 

“If we have a lot of newborn calves born at once, it’s a much bigger problem,” he shares. “Producers are going to need a team of people to warm them up, because it’s going to be hard to manage the workload.” 

Larson advises cattle producers avoid warming up cold calves too quickly because it runs the risk of causing hyperthermia or an abnormally high body temperature. 

Preparation and when to intervene 

Regardless of operation size, labor force or weather conditions, Lubbers encourages producers to prepare for the worst. 

“Producers should expect the worst weather event when they have the most calves on the ground,” he says. “I would suggest keeping a covered area bedded with some straw and encourage them to be prepared to manage the area – it’s going to take time to keep clean.” 

Additionally, Larson encourages producers to be prepared before bad weather hits and to have a working thermometer on hand. 

“The day we have tough weather, is not the best day to go to town to buy a thermometer,” he says. “Have one on hand.” 

He explains newborn calves generally have a body temperature at or around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and this temperature is expected to increase the longer they are alive. If not, Larson says intervention may be necessary.

He notes calves with a body temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit are considered to be mildly affected by hypothermia, while calves at 97 to 98 degrees Fahrenheit are in serious trouble.

In order to best prevent and cure cases of hypothermia in newborn calves, Larson says producers need to get them dry as quickly as possible, and try to keep them dry.  

Management strategies to treat hypothermia 

Nebraska Extension Beef Educator Dr. Linsday Waechter-Mead highlights management strategies in her University of Nebraska-Lincoln Feb. 1 article titled “Managing Hypothermia in Newborn Calves.” 

She notes a prolonged birth or dystocia can also be of concern and can lead to issues with hypothermia.

In addition to understanding when to intervene and checking a newborn calf’s temperature, as suggested by Lubbers and Larson, Waechter-Mead shares another tip is to place two fingers into the mouth of the calf. 

A healthy calf’s mouth will be warm and moist and the calf will attempt to chew or suck. However, if the suckle reflex is absent, it’s time to get involved. 

Producers can consider two routes when attempting to rewarm a calf – either through external or internal warming. 

Waechter-Mead notes colostrum is the first line of defense for warming a calf internally. Comprised of up to 10 percent fat, colostrum acts as a heat source by burning fat into energy and helps calves maintain body temperature. 

External warming can be achieved through commercial warming huts, forced warm air such as the floorboard of a truck or warm bath water. She encourages producers to never leave a calf unattended while using a heat source and ensure the area is clean, as they can serve as a breeding ground for pathogens. 

“Understanding the risk factors for hypothermia will aid in developing a strategy to prevent loss,” she says. “Knowing when and how to assist chilled calves is an essential part of a calving plan.” 

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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