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Cattle are usually tolerant of cold weather, but rain and wind can make their lives miserable.

December 28, 2020

4 Min Read
Herd of brown and white Hereford cows in snow
KEEP THEM DRY: Cattle are very tolerant of cold, but not if you throw in wet conditions. Muddy conditions are important to manage if you want your cattle to thrive in the cold. emholk/Getty Images

Winter weather is finally here, so if you haven’t done so already, be prepared to handle and transport cattle appropriately.

While the heat of summer can be a challenge, the cold, wet and wind of winter and early spring can cause headaches that can't be matched.

Cattle can be amazingly tolerant of cold conditions, but there are certain times when a manager needs to be thinking about what can be done to mitigate stressful cold conditions. This requires some knowledge of the science involved and a certain amount of common sense and experience.

Here are five steps to help cattle thrive in cold:

1. Get to know the LCT. Research refers to the lower critical temperature when describing the ability of cattle to withstand cold conditions.

The LCT is the temperature where animal maintenance requirements increase to the point where performance is negatively affected. Various sources put this temperature between 18 and 20 degrees F.

However, a fact sheet from North Dakota State University states that after adaptation, mature beef cows in good body condition during the middle third of gestation may have an LCT as low as minus 6 degrees during dry, calm conditions.

Critical temperatures for beef cattle are determined, in part, by the condition of the coat. Below the critical temperature, livestock must expend more energy in order to keep warm.

When an animal has a lighter coat, the LCT goes up. If the cow has a summer coat or is wet, the LCT is about 60 degrees. Of course, we wouldn't normally expect a cow with a summer coat to be subjected to winter.

Early blizzards out West, where we often see lots of dead animals, adversely affect cattle whose coats were not at a winter level. Cold rains can happen in the winter, and a winter coat is almost useless when wet.

When the coat is wet, it loses the insulation factor of air trapped between hair fibers. Most stockmen know that an animal is usually better off in snow rather than cold rain.

2. Provide wind protection. Several sources concur that for every degree below the LCT, a cow's energy (total digestible nutrients) intake increases by 1%. Basically, the animal needs more energy to sustain itself.

What can cattle managers do to make sure their animals are not subjected to unnecessary cold stress?

Protection from wind is obvious. Windchill can worsen stress from a cold rain. A well-ventilated building, a stack of big bales, woods, brush, fencerows and hollows are all potential windbreaks.

3. Mitigate muddy conditions. Reduce muddy conditions to every extent possible. This can be especially difficult in March. Mud has pretty much the same effect as rain in reducing insulation from the cattle's hair.

Use bedding to help keep cattle clean and to provide insulation from mud or frozen ground. Rotate hay feeding areas if possible.

In many situations, mud can't be fully avoided, but at least try to establish an area where cattle can lie down that can be bedded and dry. If you need assistance with mitigating muddy, heavy-use areas, contact USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to discuss ideas on what can be done.

4. Adjust feeding program. Feeding programs may need to be tweaked in prolonged cold conditions. Be prepared for cattle to eat more — cows that normally consume 2.5% of their body weight in hay may increase to 3.5%.

Provide higher-quality forage if available. Digestibility and energy levels in the forage are the key things to focus on. Higher-energy forage will help the cattle deal with increased energy expenditure.

Supplementing cattle with grain or byproducts is another strategy, especially if the only forage available is low quality. A few pounds of grain may be all it takes, but discuss this with a nutritionist to make sure you don't overfeed or underfeed the supplement.

5. Provide a comfortable trailer ride. One area of concern that we sometimes forget about is transporting animals in cold weather.

There may be no wind, but the animals on your trailer that are heading off to the stockyards — or starting a three-hour drive to a livestock show — only know your truck is moving 60 mph, and it's really cold back there.

If it's 20 degrees and the wind is 40 mph, the windchill is minus 21 degrees. If you haven't done something to block the airflow in your trailer, those animals are having a pretty chilly ride.

Remember, if your cattle are wet and you are transporting them in cold weather, the danger will be even greater. In this case, it’s critical to get your animals to the destination as quickly as possible.

Cold weather is stressful for both cattle and producers. A little common sense and planning will go a long way to make this winter a less stressful time.

Hartman is a livestock Extension educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Source: Penn State Cooperative Extension, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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