Don’t Forget the Freeze: Winter Cattle Management Strategies

Don’t Forget the Freeze: Winter Cattle Management Strategies

By Jaclyn Krymowski

The changing seasons on a ranch are a constant dance between preparation and adaptation. As the summer sun approaches, ranchers race to implement heat stress measures for their livestock. But just as quickly, the crisp chill of autumn sets in, requiring a whole new set of preparations to tackle the cold weather. And in some regions, this change seems to happen in a matter of days, making it almost never too early to plan for either season change.

By the time winter is fully established, you’ll want to be sure you have planned and been proactive to ensure the well-being of both cattle and the ranch. Here are some crucial strategies to keep your herd healthy and your ranch running smoothly so you don’t get caught off guard by the cold.

Facilities and Cold Stress Prevention
While it’s not necessarily common knowledge, cold stress is just as big of an issue as heat stress. The cold temperatures during winter, especially when there is a wind factor mixed in, can take away from the body heat.

Keeping cattle dry and out of the wind helps them maintain a thick coat during cold snaps so stress can be prevented if your shelter and facilities are adequate. The waning days of summer are a perfect time to take note of where your damp spots have been throughout the year and where your windchill may come from.

If you have good facilities already established, take time between now and fall to invest in any updates or repairs. Keep your ease of labor in mind as well. Are your watering systems prepared to handle a freeze? Do you have adequate bedding, feed and storage – plus a reliable means of transportation that will be unobstructed when the snow flies?

Besides facility and management preparedness, producers should also ensure they have proper nutrition to support their animals in adverse conditions.

Managing Low Temps
Leaving your cattle outside as the seasons change allows them to naturally acclimate to the colder temperatures. For smaller show type herds, the temptation to keep them around the barn when it gets cold is a strong one. However, leaving them exposed triggers the growth of a thick, insulating hair coat, their first line of defense against the coming chill. Remember, a clean, dry coat offers the best protection, so keeping them comfortable is key.

One of the most powerful tools to protect animals against severe winter squalls are windbreaks. They need not be fancy and there are a variety of options, both natural and manmade, that can break the wind. Their primary purpose is to allow the animal to get out of the cold persistent wind.

Wind can easily reduce body temperature and lead to cold stress. Whether it’s planting rows of trees, creating a windbreak from round bales, or utilizing existing buildings and structures, wind protection doesn’t require bulletproof facility design. In fact, a slight breeze allows for ventilation and helps prevent moisture build-up.

Keeping animals and housing dry can be a huge factor during the winter. A bedded pack area is ideal if you live in an especially wet area. If your animals are strictly pastured, ensure there are some areas that are high and well drained, so your cattle have a clean, dry place to loaf out of the cold. Pay close attention to where water drains and sits in the summer and fall so you can be on the lookout for ideal areas for the winter.

As always, having the proper body score in winter will help them get through winter and be beneficial going into calving season. Aim now to get your animals to a body condition score (BCS) of 5 or better, which allows cows to remain comfortable when temperatures drop so long as they are kept dry.

Nutrition is another big and common topic when it comes to cow management throughout the year. Having a ration that provides more calories to maintain their BCS and stay warm is crucial. This becomes a concern when a cow is experiencing cold stress, or a temperature at which she must increase her metabolic rate to stay warm.

“Cattle will voluntarily consume more feed to meet the added energy requirements needed to stay warm when temperatures are below the lower critical temperature,” writes University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension Educator William Halfman in his bulletin Manage feeding to help cattle handle cold stress.

“This can range from a 2% to 25% increase in voluntary intake to meet their energy needs. Intake during extreme cold and blizzards can vary greatly.”

But there are some strategies that can be implemented to help provide dietary support. Sandy Johnson, a beef specialist with Kansas State University, recommends adding elements with high digestible fiber and energy dense feedstuffs to supply cows with additional supplementation to a roughage diet.

“When cold stress occurs, feeding cattle late in the day can help cattle cope with night-time temperature declines as the heat of fermentation in the rumen will peak about six hours after consumption,” she writes in her bulletin Preparing for Winter Weather Extremes.

“Cattle may move from grazing various crop residue fields to other sites during the winter months. It may be appropriate to stage some emergency feed supplies near these locations in case deep snow would prevent access to these areas for a time.”

Remember that water is just as important in the winter as it is in the summer. When water consumption goes down, feed intake follows. It’s easy for water sources to be neglected in the winter because we often assume animals aren’t as thirsty and don’t pay attention to water sources, which can easily become frozen.

By implementing these strategies in advance – providing wind protection, ensuring proper nutrition, maintaining dry bedding and providing access to water – you will save yourself and your animals undue stress and risk during some of the harshest months of the year.

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