Come in out of the cold: Calf Warmers

The official start of spring may be March 20, but this week’s freezing rain, snow and wind has made it abundantly clear that winter isn’t quite finished with its brutality just yet.

For ranchers in the region, March and April have traditionally been months reserved for calving season. Typically, by this time of year going into spring, the bitter cold and intense blizzards have died down, and the biggest issue producers must contend with is mud.

However, the last two years may have cattlemen and women rethinking their breeding plans for 2020. Last year’s April Xanto Blizzard hit ranchers hard, and the timing hit right in the middle of calving season for many. The new year hasn’t brought ideal weather conditions with it either as producers have experienced record low temperatures in January and February, while March has been riddled with more snow storms, rain, blizzards and flooding.

With the inclement weather looming, cattle producers are in for a long battle ahead. One item that many seasoned ranchers will be relying on heavily in the days to come is a calf warming box (or “hot box”).

“The radiant heater in these seem to be a nice option. They will not dry a calf as well, but it is more of an instant, better distributed heat for when you really need to warm up. And it’s all contained in the hot box, so it’s less of a fire risk if you are using it in a calving barn. Ryan Urban, rancher

A popular choice for many is Koehn’s Calf Warmer. Priced at $550, this blue unit is built with molded polyethylene, comes with a one-year warranty and runs on a Turbo Heater. It features a 10-ft. tow rope and two removable grates for easy cleaning. It’s dimensions are 50” long, 26” wide and 43” high. It weighs 75 lbs.

Naomi Loomis is a rancher and Koehn dealer at Double A Feeds, Inc. She uses this model at home on the Circle L Ranch near Alliance, Neb., and has these units available at her store, as well. Visit to inquire about availability.

“This model works great for us,” said rancher Shauna Kummer, of Alexandria, S.D. “We were able to fit twins in it the other day. I can guarantee we use it more than once again this calving season. I’m just praying that spring is somewhere around the corner!”

“We currently use the Koehn Calf Warmer, as well,” said Dani Heisler Wodill, a rancher from Viroqua, Wisc. “The advantages are with the slatted floor, any snow or rain on the calf can get away from the animal. They are engineered to maintain airflow utilizing vents. With the plastic material, it allows for regular cleaning for maintaining health also. The disadvantages are they can be cost prohibitive. Also, they take a little time to get up to full heat. If you need it for a chilled or fresh calf, they work well, but the warm up time is long when you have a hypothermic calf. During the long cold stretch, we leave them on to maintain heat.”

“The radiant heater in these seem to be a nice option,” added Ryan Urban, a rancher from Kimball, S.D. “They will not dry a calf as well, but it is more of an instant, better distributed heat for when you really need to warm up. And it’s all contained in the hot box, so it’s less of a fire risk if you are using it in a calving barn.”

The Roy-L-Heat Animal Warmer is another option for ranchers.

According to Smucker Manufacturing, of Harrisburg, Ore., “The Roy-L-Heat Animal Warmer is made of tough, high-density polyethylene. The interior size provides adequate space for calves to lie down and to stand up. On the opposite side of the heater, there is a rubber, “head boot” which permits the animal to breathe outside air when desired, while still holding the warm air inside at all times. The, “attic vent” allows excess moisture to escape. A 110-volt heater circulates body temperature air around the animal. The heater is protected in a separate enclosure attached to the rear of the box and easily removes to make rinsing and disinfecting simple.”

“We use the Roy-L-Heat Animal Warmer, and it’s been a real life saver, literally!” said Nicole Small, a rancher from Neodesha, Kans. “The hot box is one of the best investments we have ever made. It starts with a little heater. It will warm the air quite a bit, but we have found if you really need to warm a very cold calf it is best to bring the box to a heated garage or in the house.”

Priced at $785, this unit is available through several dealers. Find a dealer near you here:

Sioux Steel Company, located in Lennox, S.D., carries an orange calf warmer. The company says, “The heater is located in a separate enclosure at the rear of the calf warmer. The interior of the calf warmer provides enough room, so the calf can lie down or stand. The instinctive identity scent will not be removed, so waiting mothers reclaim their rejuvenated infants at once.”

Made from durable, medium density polyethylene, this unit features a removable top section for easy cleaning, a ribbed bottom, a vent/peeop hole for proper ventilation and viewing and a 110 vol, 2-speed heater. It is 24” wide, 45” tall and 50” long. The warmer with heater weighs 150 lbs.

It is priced at $742 and can be purchased here:

The options to purchase a hot box are numerous; however, many skilled and thrifty ranchers prefer to make their own. For many years in the early 2000s, students of the Sanborn FFA Chapter built calf warming boxes, complete with their school name and painted in FFA’s signature colors, blue and yellow.

“My dad purchased his from Sanborn Central FFA 15 years ago, and in that time, we’ve only had to replace the heater,” said Justin Brown, a rancher from Freeman, S.D. “These hot boxes are made of wood and have a hole in each top corner to let excess heat out. They warm up fast, and I like them better than my boss’s poly one because they don’t get as steamy. I’ve never touched one to repair it, and I’ve run 100 or more calves through them this season alone. I have also purchased a very similar wooden one off Craigslist. They are truly lifesavers. I finally unplugged mine the other day. It’s been running for 50 days straight!”

“We have a homemade model,” added Heisler Wodill. “The advantages here are you can put more calves in the box, and they did seem to get warmer quicker. A hot box was more affordable to construct than purchasing. The disadvantages are they may not be as electrically sound, and to work with the calf, you need to be in the box with them. It is a pain in the back. Also, there is no real ability to sanitize the wood well.”

Producers will be looking for any way to save hypothermic calves from sickness and death during this most recent blizzard, and hot boxes may serve a purpose for many.

And even as winter fades into spring, calves born in the cold rain and mud might benefit from some time spent in a hot box. It’s an extra step and more labor required, but if it saves the calf, a calf warming box is surely an investment that will pay for itself very quickly. F