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Winter Wisdom for Cattle Care: Essential Strategies for Navigating the Cold


It’s astonishing, isn’t it? January has arrived once again! Every season has its ups and downs, and personally, the chill in the air presents its own set of hurdles. Feeling cold tends to sap my motivation and makes starting my day’s work a bit more daunting.

However, I find that when I’m well-prepared and thoughtfully anticipate my tasks—whether tending to cattle or handling various farm duties—I manage far better during winter.

Although our cattle may naturally cope with the chilly outdoor conditions better than we do, the harshness of winter—with its freezing temperatures, sharp winds, and occasional blizzards (though rare in our area)—can still be tough on them.

The resilience of cattle to such harsh conditions varies significantly, depending on their breed and origin. Nonetheless, taking the right steps in advance can ensure your cattle remain comfortable and thrive even during the most frigid winter days.

As you gear up for the winter, there are essential considerations and common pitfalls to be aware of regarding the welfare of your cattle. Here’s a roundup of insights and tips to effectively navigate cattle care during the colder months.

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Nutritional Balance and Maintenance Requirements

During the chillier months, a symphony of elements like frosty temperatures, brisk winds, and a mix of snow, rain, and slush can significantly heighten stress levels for livestock.

As highlighted by the team at Ohio Beef Extension, the crux of this impact stems from the mercury drop, which modifies the energy needs for maintaining livestock health and well-being.

This maintenance requirement is the nutritional intake to ensure an animal’s weight remains stable – not gaining or shedding pounds. Interestingly, even as the demand for energy spikes during colder times, the necessity for protein stays constant.

It’s worth noting that numerous scholarly articles present nutritional guidelines for beef cattle, offering advice on ration adjustments in response to wintry conditions.

Astute livestock caretakers are well aware of the uptick in feed requirements as the temperature drops, and they recognize the crucial role of ensuring continuous water access to avoid a dip in feed consumption.

Daily dry matter intake of beef cows with respect to temperature
Temp, F <5 5-22 22-41 41-59 59-77 77-95 >95
Intake, % change 1.16 1.07 1.05 1.03 1.02 0.90 0.65

When the cold bites, the body’s response is comprehensive, engaging nearly every system.

From shivering muscles to accelerated heart rates, deeper breaths, increased urine output, and a surge in energy expenditure across all tissues – these are all part of the body’s multifaceted strategy to combat the cold, ultimately raising the energy needs for the cattle.

Particularly vulnerable are spring-calving cows, especially first-time mothers, who, if not in optimal condition, face heightened risks during childbirth.

The repercussions can be severe, ranging from the birth of frail calves more prone to mortality and diseases like scours, to compromised colostrum quality and reduced milk yield.

This impacts the immediate calf’s growth and can delay the mother’s return to fertility, affecting the subsequent breeding cycle.

In most situations, a blend of hay and stockpiled forage suffices to meet these nutritional needs, though variability is a given and necessitates proper testing.

The Ohio State University Extension provides a valuable resource, ANR-2-98, detailing forage testing methodologies and result interpretation. Assistance with sample testing is often available through local Extension Offices.

Cattle thrive within a specific temperature spectrum, the thermoneutral zone, where their bodily functions demand the least nutritional input.

Considering factors like wind chill and coat insulation, this zone’s lower temperature thresholds are crucial for optimizing cattle care.

Table 1. Estimated Lower Critical Temperatures for Beef Cattle *
Coat Description Critical Temperature
Summer Coat or Wet 60 degrees F
Dry Fall Coat 45 degrees F
Dry Winter Coat 32 degrees F
Dry Heavy Winter Coat 19 degrees F
* From Browsen, R. & Ames D.”Winter Stress in Beef Cattle” Cattle Producer’s Library. CL760.

While both snow and cold rain present challenges, snow is the lesser evil, as it doesn’t compromise the air insulation provided by the cattle’s hair, unlike rain which mats down the hair, drastically altering the critical temperature threshold for a Dry Winter Coat from 32°F to nearly 60°F.

Research suggests that for each degree below this critical temperature, a cow’s energy needs (Total Digestible Nutrients, TDN) rise by 1%, and ration digestibility decreases by 1% for every 10-degree drop, underscoring the need for enhanced feed quality as temperatures plummet.

Example of Effect of Temperature on Energy Needs
Effective Temperature Extra TDN Needed Extra Hay Needed
or, Extra Grain Needed
50 F 0 0 0
+30 F 0 0 0
10 F 20% 3.5-4 lbs 2-2.5 lbs
-10 F 40% 7-8 lbs 4-6 lbs.

In addition to the cold, winter also brings the menace of mud, potentially ramping up energy demands by 7-30%. This necessitates better feed and strategic feed management to mitigate the negative impacts discussed.

Lastly, Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is an invaluable tool for gauging the adequacy of feed, especially crucial in the final trimester of pregnancy. A 5, 6, or 7 BCS on a 1-9 scale is ideal.

A downward trend in BCS is a clear indicator of insufficient nutrition, calling for immediate diet enhancement.

Winter Wisdom for Cattle Care
Credit: UNL Beef

Climate Challenges: Shielding Livestock from Harsh Conditions

Proactive measures and careful planning can significantly enhance the comfort of your cattle during the cold winter months.


Climate Challenges

While the weather is beyond your control, diligent efforts to shield your livestock from harsh conditions are crucial.

With scorching days and freezing nights, temperature fluctuations present significant challenges for cattle. Damp conditions without a dry resting area can further stress the herd. To alleviate these difficulties, consider:

  1. Prioritizing pasture grazing over confining them to a dry lot.
  2. Providing a raised mound in dry lots for water runoff, offering cattle a dry resting place.
  3. Removing excess water from pens or lots using equipment ensures a solid, dry resting area.

Hydration Needs

Cattle’s thirst is apparent in the sweltering summer, but winter hydration is equally vital. Water sources can be deceptive, hidden beneath layers of ice.

Frozen ponds, malfunctioning water fountains, and ice-encased stock tanks are common issues. Combat these challenges by:

  • Keeping tools like axes ready to break ice on ponds for drinkable water.
  • Regularly inspecting water fountains, ensuring heating elements function properly, and keeping spare parts for swift repairs.
  • Avoiding overfilling stock tanks to prevent complete freezing on the surface.

Learn about Caring for Your Young Livestock: Preventing Dehydration

Nutritional Demands

During freezing conditions, cattle consume more feed to maintain warmth. Adjust feed rations to meet their enhanced nutritional needs during winter. Maintain a supply of high-quality hay and grain, and plan feed purchases well before the onset of cold weather.

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Bedding and Shelter

In extreme cold, distributing straw bales provides cattle with insulating bedding. This strategy is especially beneficial in calving pastures, offering newborn calves a warm spot to rest.

Protecting cattle from the wind is also crucial, so provide windbreaks or sheltered areas.

Calving Considerations

For herds with early spring calves, vigilance is key. Monitor the basic necessities like feed and water and potential hazards.

These could range from physical dangers like icy ditches to challenges with inexperienced heifers or the threat of predators. Regular checks ensure calves are safe, accounted for, and properly nursing.

With each passing year, your understanding of your cattle’s needs, common issues, and effective preparation strategies will deepen, fostering a more resilient and thriving herd.

Winter Preparedness in Cattle Management

As the chill of winter envelopes the landscape, it becomes imperative for those in the cattle industry to adapt and respond effectively to the harsh conditions.

Summer’s scorching heat presents its challenges, yet the biting cold, dampness, and gusty winds that winter and early spring usher in present a unique set of unparalleled difficulties.

During the winter months, cattle may face stress from various factors including temperature fluctuations, wind, precipitation in rain or snow, muddy terrain, and feed quality and quantity variations.

Their body condition, ability to adapt, and other factors also play a significant role.

Remarkably, cattle possess a robust tolerance to frigid temperatures, yet there are instances when the caretaker must proactively consider measures to alleviate the harsh impact of cold weather.

This necessitates understanding the underlying science, bolstered by practical wisdom and hands-on experience.

Winter Preparedness in Cattle Management
Credit: Penn State Extension

Studies highlight the concept of the lower critical temperature (LCT), a benchmark used to gauge cattle’s resilience to cold. The LCT marks the threshold below which a cattle’s maintenance needs escalate, potentially impacting their health and productivity.

Reports vary, but typically, this temperature ranges between 18-20°F. Notably, research from NDSU indicates that under dry and tranquil conditions, well-nourished mature beef cows in mid-gestation can endure temperatures as low as minus 6°F post-acclimatization.

The thickness and condition of the cattle’s coat significantly influence their critical temperature. Below this critical threshold, cattle expend additional energy to maintain warmth.

Coat Description Critical Temperature
Summer coat or wet 59 degrees F
Fall coat 45 degrees F
Winter coat 32 degrees F
Heavy winter coat 18 degrees F

A thinner or damp coat raises the LCT; for instance, if the coat is akin to that of summer or is wet, the LCT can soar to around 60°F. While it’s uncommon for cattle with summer coats to face winter conditions, unexpected early blizzards can wreak havoc.

The insulating effectiveness of a winter coat diminishes significantly when wet, as the entrapped air between the hair fibers, a key insulating element, is lost.

It’s widely agreed upon that for each degree the temperature falls below the LCT, the energy requirement of cattle, measured in Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN), increases by 1%.

Hence, during colder spells, cattle necessitate enhanced energy intake to sustain themselves.

So, how can cattle managers mitigate the adverse effects of cold stress on their herd? Providing shelter from the wind is paramount, as wind chill can exacerbate the discomfort caused by cold drizzles.

Structures such as well-ventilated barns, stacks of large hay bales, natural woodland, or even man-made barriers can serve as effective windbreaks.

Mitigating muddy conditions is equally crucial, though challenging, particularly in March. Mud impedes the insulating capability of the cattle’s coat akin to rain.

Employing bedding materials can offer a dual solution – maintaining cleanliness and providing a barrier against the cold ground. Rotating hay-feeding spots can also aid in managing mud accumulation.

While it’s tough to eliminate mud, establishing a dry, beddable area for resting can significantly improve the cattle’s comfort.

In extended cold periods, revising the feeding regime may be necessary. Expect an increase in feed consumption; cows that typically consume 2.5% of their body weight in hay might increase their intake to 3.5%.

Providing high-quality forage, focusing on its digestibility and energy content, can help cattle cope with the increased energy demands.

Additionally, supplementing the diet with grains or by-products can be beneficial, particularly if the available forage is lower quality. However, consulting with a nutritionist is crucial to ensure the correct balance of supplements.

A less discussed yet critical aspect is the transportation of cattle during cold weather. For instance, on a journey, cattle might experience 60 mph wind if transported in an open trailer, even if there’s no natural wind.

Referencing a wind chill chart can offer insights into the conditions the cattle might face during transport. Providing adequate protection against airflow in the trailer is essential to prevent the animals from experiencing extreme cold.

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This becomes even more crucial if the cattle are wet, as the risk increases, underscoring the importance of swiftly reaching the destination.

Navigating through winter demands a blend of foresight and practical wisdom for cattle producers. A strategic approach and a touch of common sense can significantly ease the season’s strain for both the cattle and those who care for them.

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