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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.

| January 2017

  • 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
  • Cows stay comfortable until the combination of temperature and wind speed results in a wind chill index below the “lower critical temperature” of the animal.
    Chart courtesy Storey Publishing
  • “The Cattle Health Handbook: Preventative Care, Disease Treatments & Emergency Procedures for Promoting the Well-Being of Your Beef or Dairy Herd” by Heather Smith Thomas.
    Cover courtesy Storey Publishing

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.

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