Tucker, Brandt, and Wesley Amstutz watch over two newborn calves being warmed in the hotbox in their cattle barn. The heater is on the right side of the box. A domed top can be placed over the box to contain the heat.

Davis County’s cattle farmers are struggling to keep newborn calves alive and free from frostbite during February’s cold snap.

Taking care of newborn calves during this kind of weather is a 24-hour a day job. Kyle and Abby Payne check on their cattle every two hours — even during the night.

“We’ve been calving for 31 days and we’re all really tired,” Payne said.

The Paynes, who live in the Pulaski area, have 365 cows that are calving between January and April. Payne moves the cows into barns when they are ready to calve so he can keep a close eye on them and the babies can stay in the barn for two or three days after birth.

“After that amount of time, the calves better understand when they need to get up and suck,” he said. “We’ve got about 15 calves right now that are in barns getting special care.”

When a new calf arrives, it is given colostrum and moved from the main pen into a pen with the mother cow.

Payne says one of the issues with calving in close quarters is confusion. “Heifers, especially, may forget they have calved and walk off,” he said, explaining why the calves are penned with their mothers.

“When a calf hits the ground, it is wet and the mom licks it off. The calf just lays there, it doesn’t yet know enough to get up,” Payne explained. “Getting colostrum into its belly and getting it up and moving is important. Sometimes we have to get a calf into a heated shop and warm it up.”

Payne’s older calves are in pastures with their mothers and must be checked multiple times per day. “If a calf is down in a snowbank, we need to get it up and get it moving. We take bottles of colostrum around for those that need to warm up,” he said.

Aaron and Mindy Amstutz, who have several hundred head of cattle, also move their cows into a warm building when they are ready to calve.

The cows give birth in a barn that has a thick layer of bedding. After the mom licks off the calf, it is allowed to suck. The Amstutzes then put the calf in a hotbox in their new cattle barn to warm up and dry off.  

Once the calves are doing well, the cow-calf pairs are taken to pastures where there is a good windbreak and plenty of bedding has been laid down..

The young calves are checked frequently to make sure ears and feet are not suffering frostbite.

Mindy said the family is keeping the cows and calves in barns longer than they have ever done due to extremely cold temperatures. They have four cattle barns and are constantly shuffling the animals according to cow/calf needs. All four barns are checked every two hours, 24 hours a day.

Mindy said reducing frostbite can be a trial-and-error process. Her mother-in-law, Sandra Amstutz, has begun making sleeves to go over the calves’ heads to hold their ears against their bodies for warmth.

When calves suffer frostbite, the severity of freezing may not be known for 10 days, she said.

Aaron and Mindy’s three sons, Brandt, Tucker, and Wesley, provide lots of kid help with bottle-feeding, watering the cattle, and checking for frostbite.

“Anyone that can help now is very welcome,” Mindy said, mentioning that Aaron tries to catch a nap over the lunch hour since he is up much of the night.

Andy and Staci Joos who have about 150 cows calving this season also know the importance of “catching a wink every now and then.”

They, too, put their cows in the barn when they are ready to calve and take the babies to a heated shop to warm up.

The Joos family uses calf coats for two or three days to keep their calves warm after they are turned outside.

The coats are a half-inch thick with straps around the legs and neck.

“The coats keep the calves’ core temperature up, which helps the other parts of their bodies stay warm,” Joos said.

He said they have also used ear muffs to prevent frostbite.

Andy and Staci’s three sons help with the cattle as well as an Amish boy. “My family’s right with me,” he said.

“The key to a successful calving season in cold weather is plenty of heavy bedding — even outside — and keeping the animals well fed.”

As if calving in sub-zero temperatures isn’t enough, the Joos family is preparing for their first cattle sale at their farm south of West Grove on Feb. 26. They will be selling 55 bulls, pairs, bred cows and heifers.