Managing livestock, pastures in extreme winter weather

cattle in the snow

For those who enjoy skiing, snowmen, and igloos, this winter is pure bliss compared to last year.

If you are not into winter sports or don’t like to dig your mode of transportation out of a mound of the snow and ice, spring can’t get here fast enough. Livestock are likely in the latter group.

There is a common misconception that animals will fare better out in temperatures below freezing than humans do, but in reality when the temperatures drop below 32 F, they are cold too.

Extreme temperatures

During the winter, extreme temperatures, precipitation and wind can create substantial problems when raising livestock.

These nuisances may include drifting snow, repairs to fence, buildings and water sources, power outages, and limited access to pasture.

For the cattle, a combination of blowing snow and high winds can result in cold stress more so than cold temperatures alone.

Rain followed by cold may cause frostbite and freezing, and ice and snow storms can limit the accessibility of winter forage. If it is cold enough, bull fertility may even be impacted.

Checking water access is one of the first steps after a cold weather event. Check the water tank structure and make sure there is enough water in the tank. It is also important to clear out any ice buildup.

Heaters can be used in water sources to keep ice from forming, or half-buried water troughs can keep water unfrozen for longer periods of time compared to above ground structures since the ground temperature is often warmer than the air above it during the winter months.

If cold temperatures persist for long periods of time, cattle will need to consume more food than usual to maintain internal temperatures and body condition.

Earlier this month, here in Jefferson County, Ohio, the temperature dropped below 0 F during one morning before jumping up to a sweltering 15 F.

How do these consistently cold temperatures affect our livestock? The amount a cow or bull will eat increases as temperatures decrease to keep up with an animal’s metabolic requirement.

Feeding livestock

When temperatures drop into the 20s, feed consumption increases up to 110 percent of predicted intake and increases even further to 125 percent when temperatures plummet below 5 F.

It is a good practice to keep extra food stored in case winter is prolonged well into spring.

During the winter months, feed should be of good quality, if not great quality. Forages that are higher in quality are much easier to digest and can help cattle keep up with their metabolic requirements.

Make sure to incorporate extra grasses and/or straw in the diet. Grasses contain more cellulose that can generate additional heat when digested.

A diet of grasses also means that fermentation will create additional warmth.

The Lower Critical Temperature (LCT) is the temperature threshold for the amount of energy it costs to remain warm for livestock and other mammals.

These temperatures are affected by coat condition, wind chill, and rainfall.

In subzero conditions, cattle will eat approximately 3.5 percent of their body weight in hay, compared to 2.5 percent in mild conditions.

A general good practice is to increase the amount of feed by 1 percent for every 2 F of cold stress. However, this general rule does not account for excess precipitation or body condition.

Cattle that are losing weight are highly susceptible to cold and/or wet weather stress.

Up until now, the focus has been on the animal, but how does extreme cold affect perennial forages for the next season?

Winter pastures management

The severity of winter injury is often determined by the amount of snow cover. It may not be intuitive, but you actually want snow cover to buffer those extremely cold days.

If there is little to no snow, forage stands can thin out and in some cases, form bare patches that will need to be reseeded.

There are many factors that contribute to winter injury in our pastures, and although we can’t control the weather, we do have some control over our pasture.

When reseeding, choose species that are cold hardy. Tall fescue, reed canarygrass, and Kentucky bluegrass are examples of plants that are adapted for northern climates. Clover, birdsfoot trefoil, and orchardgrass are less cold tolerant.

The presence of grasses in a stand can decrease legume heaving and can provide some degree of cold protection either through trapping snow or covering crowns of the plants.

We don’t often talk about plant disease affecting forages because oftentimes the symptoms are less noticeable compared to agronomic or fruit and vegetable crops.

But if you have a forage species that is not as resistant to disease, these plants will be more vulnerable to winter injury. Age of the stand also impacts winter injury.

Younger stands tend to fair better in cold winters than do older stands, and this is often due to greater incidence of disease in older forage stands.

Of course, high frequency of grazing or a fall cutting can also result in winter injury since plants cannot build up their carbohydrate reserves or hold snow.

Soil health will also play a role in how quickly stands will recover. Compaction, nutrient deficiencies, or excess of certain nutrients can limit stand recovery.

Stand evaluation

When spring comes around and winter injury is suspected, allow stands to recover by grazing heavily injured areas less often.

It may even be easier on the pocketbook in the long term if ground is rented elsewhere for grazing until a stand does recover.

Applying fertilizer based on a soil test and managing weeds can also speed recovery. Frost seeding legumes or inter-seeding grasses can be done to increase stand productivity.

Usually, when we think of extreme winter weather, we think of extreme cold. Unusual high temperatures during the winter months can affect the natural cycles in our pastures, from plants to animals.

So what happens if we have another February like last year where temperatures reach well above the 70s followed by several late spring frosts?

How does this affect our animals? How does this affect our forages?

These are questions that we also need to keep in mind. Weather becomes more variable in a changing climate, and we need to be prepared for more extreme winter weather in the future.


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!



We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.