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Animal Health Notebook

A Cold Dry Spell Doesn’t Hurt Much

Cold stress on cattle depends on cattle makeup and whether it is raining, snowing or comfortably dry.


For more than 40 years I have listened to veterinarians and producers from the upper Midwest describe the long, frigid winters of the North Country.

High winds and chilly temperatures are a perfect time to spend a lot more minutes in a pickup with a good heater than in the field with the cattle.

In the cold of winter I enjoy working out on the pasture in spurts of about twelve minutes, followed by a quarter hour in the warm truck observing the grass, the cattle, and talking to fellow cattlemen on the phone.

Of course, the cattle don't have that option. They must deal with the cold.

English cattle are better suited for and adapted to cold temperatures and winter and early spring fronts than are the shorter-haired and thinner-hided Asian, African, or Mediterranean straightbred or crossbred cattle that generally carry less subcutaneous fat.

Cattle tolerant of high heat and humidity do not produce well and require more energy supplementation at temperatures below 35 degrees.

But my old friend Charley Chambers of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, reminded me a while back that "a cold dry spell don’t hurt much." This is especially true when compared with a cold, wet spell.

In our environment we average something over one inch of weekly precipitation from mid-November through mid-April. These fronts often slow down or stall out and are followed by two or more days of clouds and high humidity followed by another cold front.

These weather patterns are stressful to the entirety of the cattle operation. People wet, cattle wet, grass wet and ground wet. Mud is easily made. Grass on water-saturated ground does not last long when the cattle are given a new bite.

Our cattle graze about three times as efficiently when it is dry and the sun is shining. The freeze-dried forage is readily consumed and if water is not frozen long term, the cattle stay comfortable and full.

Remember that cattle would rather stay camped on the ground they have warmed up than rise for a few mouthfuls of something to eat as a wet cold front arrives. This change in eating pattern often results in overeating outbreaks with frequent sudden deaths in feed yards. To prevent these wrecks, hay is often fed on the front end of a wet cold front.

Healthy cattle will produce more metabolic body heat (energy) while digesting forage as compared to grain even if the forage is low in energy. Also, full cattle don’t eat as much corn.

The key to forage digestion is population density, health and reproduction of cellulolytic rumen microbes. The key to rumen microbe performance on low- to medium-quality forage is soluble protein. Soybean meal is a good example.

The addition daily or every other day of 4 to 16 ounces of bean meal per 1,000 pounds bodyweight will increase forage intake, utilization and rate of passage through the cow by 10-20%. This is important in 40-degree wet, cold weather in Tennessee and in minus-10-degree dry, cold weather in South Dakota.

Do not forget the animals need good body condition scores of 7 to 8 by mid-fall. You will not raise body condition scores of thin cattle with small amounts of supplement after early November on cattle foraging native type grasses or medium- or below-quality hay.

Every winter is challenging – some more than others. I hate cold, wet, humid, cloudy days, weeks and months. I really hate mud. I prefer sunny, dry cold spells. They don’t hurt much. I do not have control over either, but have learned to plan and make a proactive response to both. Think about it.

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