Get ready for winter cattle care

As winter approaches, many steps need to be taken to prepare your cattle. Because we never really know how long, how cold, and how wet and snowy any given winter will be, the best approach is to plan for a severe winter, be ready to address any disastrous stretches of extreme weather, and hope that the winter is actually much more mild than expected.

Get ready for winter cattle care

As winter approaches, many steps need to be taken to prepare your cattle. Because we never really know how long, how cold, and how wet and snowy any given winter will be, the best approach is to plan for a severe winter, be ready to address any disastrous stretches of extreme weather, and hope that the winter is actually much more mild than expected.

Whether you care for dairy or beef cattle, cows or calves, or multiple groups in these categories, there are several hard and fast rules to keep in mind. Obviously, the most severe of winter weather conditions can compromise any rules.

Temperature: Cattle with a heavy winter coat can survive without additional energy down to around 20 degrees F. For cattle with shorter coats (dairy or non-acclimated beef cattle), this is closer to 30 degrees F. Calves, with less body fat reserves, prefer temperatures 10 degrees warmer, so 30 or 40 degrees F, respectively. As a rule of thumb, for every degree the temperature drops below this limit, the energy demands increase by 1% for beef cattle and 2% for dairy cows and calves. A beef cow in 0 degree F weather will require 20% more energy to maintain herself than at 20 degrees F.

Moisture: The above is true, given that cattle are kept dry. As soon as cattle are wet (due to snow, sleet or steam inside a confinement building), the lower end of their comfort zone increases by 20 to 25 degrees or more, usually to 50 to 55 degrees F. Additionally, being wet doubles the amount of compensatory energy needed. Beef cows standing outside on a day when the temperature is 0 degrees F need an additional 40% increase in energy intake if they are wet!

Wind: Unfortunately, the upper Great Plains is known for brutal winters, where temperatures plummet and wind speeds soar, often at the same time. If cattle are housed outside, the wind chill factor is the temperature that should be considered. The air temperature is irrelevant if cattle are not protected from the wind. The air temperature may be 32 degrees F, but with a bit of wind, the wind chill factor drops to zero, and that same beef cow still needs an additional 20% energy in her feed even though the thermometer says she’s well within her comfort zone.

Water: Water is one of the most important nutrients to remember in the winter. Sure, water intake is expected to decline in the winter, but reduced activity and/or lack of availability due to frozen or partially frozen water sources is a significant cause of health problems in times of cold stress. Producers often overlook the importance of water in cold weather.

Feed: There are different ways to provide cattle extra nutritional energy in extreme weather. Providing extra grain or concentrate is the most common way to do this. An alternative, if possible, is to reserve some higher-quality forages for winter, though grain availability and prices compared with the cost of high-quality forages make feeding extra grain more feasible.

Be wary of too much warmth

So what have we learned in recent years? One of the most important advancements in facility design has to do with the understanding that too much warmth and shelter is often as damaging or worse than extreme cold. For cattle that are acclimated to cold temperatures, windbreaks are preferred to enclosed shelters. For calves or cows without heavy coats, fresh air and adequate air exchanges are needed to minimize the incidence of respiratory disease. Steamy, stagnant air is often high in ammonia, which damages lung defenses, and the high moisture in this air is very efficient at transmitting infectious disease-causing bacteria and viruses.

Specific to dairy calves, the energy requirements will increase by more than 30% when the temperature drops below 30 degrees F. Using a higher-fat milk replacer, adding fat to pasteurized waste milk, or feeding more milk solids to calves are all ways to increase energy intake. Calf blankets, so long as they are kept dry, will allow young calves to thrive at lower ambient temperatures.

Vlietstra is a veterinarian with Pipestone Veterinary Services, Pipestone, Minn. Call him at 800-658-2523, or email [email protected]. See www.pipestonevet.com for more information.

This article published in the October, 2014 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

Beef Herd Management

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