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Bone-chilling weather brings warmth concerns for animals

A covered calf ventures out of its shelter at the Dean Christopherson farm south of Worthington. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

WORTHINGTON — At Christy Enterprises dairy farm south of Worthington this winter, the black and white Holstein calves are sporting a little extra color.

Thinsulate coats in green, blue, black and pink shroud the calves in comfort and help regulate their body temperatures when the arctic air makes it not fit for man nor beast to be outside.

DiDi Christopherson has used the coats for the farm’s newest animals for the past three years, and said the design has been improved upon in that time. The coats snap around the calf’s chest, stomach and legs, and are adjustable so as the calf grows, the coat can be loosened.

Calves at the dairy are in individual, outdoor pens with calf huts to protect them from the wind.

Sara Barber, a large animal veterinarian at the Veterinary Medical Center in Worthington, said calves do really well in the hutches — inside their own “micro-environment.”

Christopherson can attest to that, saying they haven’t seen any health issues in the calf crop despite the fluctuations in temperature and extreme cold.

“When it gets cold, it takes a lot more observation and time,” Christopherson said. “We’ve added extra bedding and extra feedings to keep their energy levels up.”

On the really cold days, she has snapped a second coat on the calves for added protection.

“We had 50-below windchill and they’d jump up and run outside to eat,” she said.

Calves are born inside a barn at the dairy farm, and Christopherson said she has them in a coat when they are hours old. She typically keeps the coats on them until age 6 weeks, when they are moved from the calf hutches to a larger shelter.

The calf coats, said Barber, will add 10 degrees of body heat to the calf.

Young livestock is typically the most stressed during bitter cold temperatures like those in southwest Minnesota this winter.

Still, Barber said producers are doing a good job to make sure their animals aren’t stressed.

“I think the farmers have adapted really well,” she said. “Their primary concern is the welfare of the animals.”

Providing the proper nutrition, increasing calories by 20 to 30 percent for general livestock and adding more bedding are all important to help get farm animals through the cold snaps.

“The first problems, if we’re going to see any, are in young calves — diarrhea and pneumonia,” Barber said. “It’s probably worse when we get weather fluctuations — the animals have trouble adapting to that and we will see more respiratory problems. Pneumonia shows up the first thing in a stressed animal.”

Overall, Barber said livestock health this winter “hasn’t been bad.”

“Typically what people will see is an increase in pneumonia cases — an increase in young dairy calf health issues — but farmers are really good at watching the weather and adapting and making sure their animals are well taken care of.”

In older livestock, Barber said feedlot animals and dairy heifers are also more affected by the cold weather. 

Small animal care

Sara Hooge, a small animal veterinarian at the VMC, said the biggest issue with pets this winter has been foot pad dryness or damage in dogs that spend either part or all of their time outdoors. Salt sprinkled on sidewalks and scattered on streets can also compromise a pet’s feet.

“Most dogs that are out regularly will gradually get used to the colder temperatures. But if they’re not used to the cold weather they will be more susceptible to hypothermia and foot pad damage,” she said. “Smaller, inside pets should be out for only a short period of time.”

Proper nutrition and knowing a pet’s risk factors for developing hypothermia will go a long way to help pets get through the cold winter.

Hooge said people with an inside dog should monitor their pet when they are outdoors and make sure they “do their duty.”

“They should let their dog outside often, for short durations,” she said.

Indoor dogs with short coats could be protected with a vest or sweater when they are put outside, but Hooge cautions the pet only be out for a short time — less than 10 minutes.

So far this winter, Hooge hasn’t seen any cases of hypothermia in dogs.

“The number one risk factor for developing hypothermia in pets is whether they are used to the cold. If they are outside all the time, their bodies will get thermo-regulated to the colder weather,” said Hooge. “These dogs do well outside. They have thick coats and, with a shelter from the wind and elements, they do well in winter outside. Dogs that live inside have a higher risk for developing hypothermia.”

Dogs with a higher risk factor for hypothermia are those with a thin hair coat, indoor dogs and smaller, toy breed pets. Puppies are also more at risk, as well as dogs who have become wet due to snow, rain or freezing rain.

Meanwhile, dogs with a thick hair coat, are outside with shelter, or moderately obese tend to have a reduced risk of hypothermia.

“If you put a Chihuahua out with below zero temperatures, it would not do well. But a husky used to being outside might be playing happily,” Hooge said.

Bringing an outside dog indoors during extreme weather isn’t the best either — they can get too hot. Hooge recommends providing them shelter in the garage if they don’t have a dog house with ample bedding.

She also encourages pet owners to provide their animals with good quality feed (fat, protein and carbohydrate content) and plenty of fresh water.

“It’s really important to provide fresh water several times a day. Water intake is important to maintain health and water freezes quickly at these temperatures,” she said.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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