Caring for Cattle in the Cold

caring cattle cold

How did your cow herd weather this latest cold snap? We could well be in for another one or more before winter bids farewell. A few simple practices can go a long way towards bringing your animals through cold weather in better shape – and saving you money into the bargain.

As with most severe-weather preparedness advice, it’s what you do well ahead of time that can have the biggest impact. In the case of cattle, entering winter in good body condition is the single largest factor for enabling animals to weather the cold. A cow in good body condition will be able to maintain, or even gain, weight in conditions that will cause a lower-condition herd-mate to shed still more pounds.

However, you go into winter with the herd you’ve got, and even if all your BCS scores aren’t where you’d like them to be, there are still other steps that you can take to lessen cold weather’s impact on your animals.

First and foremost, get them out of the wind! The wind chill factor works the same for cattle as for humans. It takes much less energy to maintain body heat in still air than when the wind makes the effective temperature 10, 20, or even more degrees lower.

The lee side of a barn or building can be all the windbreak that’s needed, although purpose-built structures can also serve. Dense enough stands of trees can accomplish the same thing – as with the “living barns” we use as part of our agroforestry program on the Kerr Center ranch.

Also, don’t neglect water access! Our in-ground, gravity-flow water tanks get us a long way toward liquid water for the cattle herd all winter long, but there are plenty of other tricks. ATTRA recently profiled three different operations’ techniques for keeping their livestock watered in cold weather. (Two are in Arkansas, with the third in Montana – where anything that works ought to be overkill in Oklahoma!)

While it’s important to keep water in livestock in cold weather, if possible it’s best not to have it on them. Here, again, even if there isn’t barn space for everyone, tree cover can help the critters keep dry.

Most of these tips are common sense, and if you’ve been keeping cattle for any length of time, you’ve probably already implemented them all. You still might be surprised, though, at just what a difference these simple steps can make in terms of maintaining body condition.

For instance, a BCS 5 cow with a dry coat won’t need to start burning energy to maintain her body temperature until the temperature falls to 19° F. However, the same cow at BCS 4 can only make it down to 27° F before she needs to start burning energy to keep herself warm, meaning you’ll spend more on hay for her. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers a fact sheet with much more detail on these kinds of comparisons.

Tag(s): cattle

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