Caring for Cattle in the Cold

Learn some livestock skills and see what adjustments you can make when it comes to the care of your cattle in the cold and wet winter months.

Heifers eating in snow

Sort cattle into groups and feed accordingly. For example, these yearling heifers are in a different pasture for winter than the mature dry cows, as they need better-quality hay.

Photo by Heather Smith Thomas

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Caring for cattle can be tricky. Not only do you have to be mindful of the various ailments and disorders that might befall your livestock, but you also might have to deal with injuries or accidents. Just being aware of the changing care schedule your animals will undergo as the seasons change is a full-time job. You want them at their healthiest and happiest. In The Cattle Health Handbook (Storey Publishing, 2009) Heather Smith Thomas is here to help tell you how to make that happen in every season of the year, and every season of a cow’s life.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Cattle Health Handbook.

Cold-Weather Problems

Cattle often need extra care and feed during cold or wet weather to make sure they stay healthy and continue to milk well if they are lactating or grow well if they are young. Cold temperatures, wind, rain, and mud are all stressful to cattle. Feed intake, rate of feed passage through the digestive tract, and body metabolism all increase. The feed requirement of cattle may go up 10 to 15 percent. All of these changes contribute to an increase in heat production so the animal will be able to withstand winter temperatures without suffering cold stress. Management to prepare cattle for winter and minimize these stresses can save you money and reduce the incidence of sick animals.

Body Type

A three-year South Dakota study found that cows with higher body-condition scores return to heat sooner in the breeding season and are also more likely to become pregnant when bred. Thin cows (scoring 3 or less) have the poorest chance of getting pregnant. Several other studies have shown that average body condition (score 5) or score 6 at calving and at the start of breeding season results in the highest pregnancy rates, but many factors can affect the reproductive success of a beef herd. Ideal body condition can vary with breed and cow type, season, and geographic location. As a general rule, cows in cold climates need more flesh covering than do cows in warm climates.

Newborn calves in cold weather are at greater risk for cold stress than their mothers because they don’t yet have a functional rumen and don’t produce as much body heat as older animals. They also don’t have as much body fat for insulation. If you calve in cold weather, make sure calves get dry quickly and are able to get up and nurse. It also helps to have shelters so young calves can get out of the wind.

Many factors will influence the need and makeup of your winter feeding program, including climate, the type of cattle you raise, whether you utilize range or irrigated pasture, and crop types. It’s usually more profitable to match cattle type to your feed sources than try to create a feeding program to fit cattle that can’t do well in your particular environment.

Cows that get too thin during a cold or wet winter climate suffer more cold stress and must rob body-fat stores in order to keep warm. It becomes a vicious cycle; they can’t keep warm so they rob more body fat and become even thinner. Calves born to thin cows may be compromised and more prone to disease during their first weeks of life. Calves may be born weak and unable to get up and nurse promptly enough to get the necessary colostrum in time. Thin cows may not produce adequate levels of antibodies in their colostrum; if they are underfed they may be short on protein — which is essential to production of good colostrum. Calf survivability is lowered in thin cows, as is the cows’ ability to rebreed.

To help cows maintain health and body condition, keep vaccinations up to date, assess parasite populations, and deworm and delouse cattle if necessary, so parasites won’t rob them of nutrition when they need it most. Provide windbreaks and bedding during winter storms if you live in a cold climate, so cattle won’t expend so much energy just to keep warm. Without bedding, energy requirements may increase by 12 to 15 percent just to offset the heat lost when cattle lie on cold ground.

Adjust Feed and Feeding Habits

How much hay or supplement a cow needs in winter depends on weather conditions; the age of the cow; her body condition; the quantity and quality of available pasture or crop residue; and whether she is still nursing her calf, is dry, is ready to calve again soon, or calved in the fall and needs extra nutrition to milk well and breed back again. Some herds do well in fall and winter on good native pastures without any other feed, especially if they are dry that time of year and not nursing calves, unless snow covers the grass or weather is bitterly cold. This situation is actually healthier for cattle than congregating them by feeding hay. When spread out on large pastures, they aren’t exposed to as much fecal contamination, and their intestinal tracts don’t get such a buildup of E. coli and C. perfringens that can be transmitted later to their calves (after calving).

Some kinds of dry-land bunch grasses in certain types of soil meet all the nutrient requirements of a dry cow except salt — as long as the grass isn’t too dry. During a drought the grass may be short on protein and phosphorus. Salt should always be provided for cattle, since this is the mineral most lacking in forage. Other kinds of pasture, especially “tame” or irrigated pastures or crop residues, lose some nutrient value once they dry up or freeze, and cattle will need supplemental feed (hay, silage, grain, or a protein supplement and mineral mix). Many regions are short on trace minerals, and you’ll need to add copper, selenium, or other important elements to your salt-mineral mix.

Food Choices

If weather is cold and windy, cows need to eat more, just to keep warm. If they stand around or huddle behind windbreaks instead of grazing, they can’t eat enough to maintain body heat. Long, cold winter nights are part of the challenge of getting cattle to eat enough. Days (and grazing time) are short, so extra feed may be needed to make sure cattle eat enough to maintain condition and keep warm. They’ll often eat hay during the night if it’s too cold to graze.

Even if pasture is available, they may not start grazing till midday, when temperatures are warmest, and lose weight because they don’t eat enough total feed during the day. This problem can be resolved by feeding some hay or supplement early in the day to get them going, and then they’ll start grazing.

Cattle need to eat more roughage (forage) in cold weather to obtain calories for heat energy. If they don’t eat enough fibrous feed — feed that not only provides nutrition but also furnishes them with the extra heat created by the fermentation process — pounds melt off them as they rob body fat to create the energy needed for warmth. More total pounds of roughage in the diet — all the pasture they can eat, or some extra grass hay, or even some good-quality straw — can keep them warm, as long as they have enough protein for the rumen microbes to digest it, since digestion and breakdown of cellulose create heat energy.

In cold weather, high-quality alfalfa hay by itself is not the best feed. Even though it supplies plenty of protein, calcium, vitamin A, and other important nutrients, it does not have enough fiber to produce heat energy during cold weather. Cattle on a diet of high-quality alfalfa may lose weight in winter. Alfalfa alone is not adequate for cattle when it’s really cold; they gobble it up and stand around shivering. If a cow is cold, she should be given all the roughage she will clean up. You don’t dare feed that much high- quality alfalfa, or she may bloat. She’ll do better with a lower-quality alfalfa (containing more fiber and fewer leaves) or a mix of alfalfa and grass hay, with the amount of grass hay increased the colder it gets. High-quality alfalfa and good-quality straw (to sup- ply the needed fiber for heat energy) often make a good mix.

Cold-Weather Adjustments

Cattle that have a chance to acclimate gradually to winter develop a thick hair coat and put on body fat if feed sources are adequate. Hair and fat both serve as good insulation against the cold. If you live in a region that has cold winters, select a type of cattle that has a naturally good hair coat and that fattens easily. They’ll handle cold much better than the breeds that were developed for hot climates.

If you live in a cold climate and buy cattle from a warmer area, bring them home before cold weather starts so they have time to grow a good hair coat. With short summer hair, the typical beef cow may chill when temperatures drop toward 40 degrees F (4.4 C), whereas with a heavy winter coat she can stay comfortable at temperatures well below 0 degrees F (–17.8 C) if there’s no wind. She also adjusts by increasing her metabolic rate, to boost heat production, which also increases her appetite.

Water Needs

It’s just as important to pay attention to water sources in cold weather, as it is when it’s hot and humid. Cattle need adequate ice-free water. If they don’t drink enough, they won’t eat enough and will lose weight. In some instances they may become dehydrated and impacted. If contents of the smaller stomachs become too dried out, feed won’t move through, and the digestive tract will become blocked, which will eventually kill the cow. Signs that cattle are not drinking enough are loss of appetite; weight loss; lack of gut fill (looking “empty”); and firm, dry manure.

Moderate-size pregnant cows need about six gallons (22.7 L) of water daily in cool weather and twice that much when lactating after calving. The temperature of drinking water should be at least 40 degrees F (4.4 C) or higher, if possible, in cold weather. If water is colder than that, cows won’t drink enough. Extremely cold water may cause temporary paralysis of the digestive tract and loss of appetite, even though the cow needs a higher energy intake to maintain body temperature to warm the ice cold water in the gut. Sometimes a few dollars spent on warming the drinking water for cattle in cold weather, can save a lot of money on feed and health costs. Tank insulation and heating elements will help assure that the herd has enough to drink in cold weather.

Snow as a Water Source

Cattle can utilize snow for water intake in regions that get adequate winter snowfall and if snow stays powdery and not crusted. They must be able to sweep it up with their tongues. People used to think that cows eating snow during cold weather required more energy to warm it to body temperature and therefore needed more feed, but research trials (with some cattle using snow and some using water) showed no difference in feed intake or weight gains. Cattle using snow just eat slower. They graze or eat hay for a while, then lick snow, eat some more, then lick more snow. They consume small amounts of snow through the day, whereas animals drink water only once or twice a day in cold weather. The intermittent eating of forage and snow seems to minimize thermal stress, and heat created by digestion is enough to warm the liquid to body temperature. It was also thought that cows deprived of adequate water (having to eat snow) would be at risk for impaction, but this is not true. Impaction is mainly a problem when cows must utilize coarse dry forage with low protein levels or do not have enough snow or water for adequate moisture.

Eating snow is a learned behavior, however. Cattle quickly learn by watching other cows, but those with no role models may go thirsty for a while before trying it. If snow is readily available and cattle learn to use it, they do well on winter pastures without water as long as snow is adequate but not so deep that it covers the forage.


Excerpted from The Cattle Health Handbook (c) Heather Smith Thomas. Illustrations by (c) Elara Tanguy. Used with permission of Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: The Cattle Health Handbook.