Winter With a Dairy Heifer
It’s winter. It’s cold and it’s windy. How we manage our dairy heifers during the winter months impacts how well our heifers continue to grow and how healthy they stay, and ultimately the quality of show heifer that is returned to the dairy farmer they’re borrowed from. Several factors that should be considered include shelter, water and nutrition and also health signs to keep an eye out for. It’s the 4-H and FFA livestock exhibitor’s responsibility to make sure these areas are covered for the dairy show calf’s best interests.
While each heifer should have plenty of shelter on a normal basis, it’s even more important when the temperature drops. Ideally this includes an area with three sides and a roof cover. It can be a typical barn, a run in shelter, panels and tarps, or whatever keeps that heifer out of the wind and rain. It’s best if the prevailing wind is blocked and not coming into the shelter. It’s particularly important to keep their living area dry, possibly adding more shavings or straw to make deeper bedding, and making sure there are dry areas of their pasture to stand as well. Blanketing is also an option and might be an additional help when they’re clipped.
We know water is important in the Georgia heat, but it can’t be forgotten over the winter show season. Continue to offer free choice, adequate amounts of water, and stay diligent about keeping the ice broken for water access. Sometimes people use heated buckets or put heating units inside troughs to keep water clear of ice. Keep an eye out for how much they drink. If they aren’t drinking, they aren’t eating as much and won’t stay as warm as possible.
Winter animals require more energy to handle cold stress, in addition to gaining the ideal 1.7 to 2 pounds per day for a Holstein heifer. Going into the winter with an appropriate weight and body condition gives the heifer the best chance of staying healthy and growing throughout the cold times. Consider upping the amounts of grain fed to increase calories, and possibly consult a vet or nutritionist about appropriate protein and general nutritional levels in the initial feed balance. Allow free choice hay at all times so they can stay eating and warm.
With all precautions taken, some heifers will still get sick. One of the first signs a calf isn’t feeling well is that they stop eating as much as normal. Other signs are snotty noses, sunken eyes, drooping ears, and general lethargy. Respiratory problems often come up during the winter, so watch out for difficulty breathing and coughing. Prior vaccinations are helpful for this as well. Find a veterinarian to have on call. Possibly the vet who signed your heifer’s health papers could work, but have their numbers ready.
Dairy heifers have extra needs during the winter, especially show heifers. With extra care taken to these areas, they are more likely to stay healthy and growing throughout the winter.