Arctic blast: Animal owners reminded of husbandry, energy needs during cold weather

hay bale in snow

SALEM, Ohio — Some of the coldest weather in 20 years will move into Ohio and surrounding states today — brining hazardous and potentially life-threatening conditions to both humans and animals.

In Salem, the town where Farm and Dairy is printed, the daytime high will reach about 20 degrees and fall through the afternoon and evening, to a low of minus 13 degrees by night.

The National Weather Service says to expect 30 mph wind gusts and wind chill values as low as minus 36 degrees. The cold will continue through Tuesday night, with daytime highs below zero.

While cold weather is nothing new, livestock professionals and area weather stations are reminding animal owners to do everything they can to keep their animals safe and productive.

The basics

The main thing is to make sure animals have adequate shelter, water, dry bedding and feed. Pet owners should bring pets indoors.

But there is much more. First, animals have a higher requirement for energy in the colder months, so producers should have high-quality forages and grains on hand to meet their needs.

Related: In cold weather, protect newborn calves.

Cold temperatures, cold rains and muddy conditions can significantly increase the energy required by livestock metabolism to provide enough heat for the animal to maintain its body temperature.

“All of these winter weather conditions can negatively impact livestock performance and increase the energy requirement of the animal,” said OSU Extension Educator Rory Lewandowski, in a news release. “With the colder than average temperatures the region has experienced in December, it’s time for producers to start thinking about their livestock and their body condition.”


The average horse, with a lower activity level, should eat between 1.5 and 2 percent of its body weight in feed per day to maintain its weight, according to the University of Kentucky.

That feed requirement goes up in the winter, as the horse uses more calories to keep warm. Owners should provide extra hay and add grain to the diet if forage supplies are not adequate. For mature horses at maintenance a good quality legume-grass mixed hay should be adequate while young growing horses or broodmares in late gestation require a concentrate in their diets to meet the increased calorie needs due to the colder temperatures.

If an owner is adding concentrate for the first time, make the additions gradually to prevent digestive upsets. In addition horses will need shelter to provide protection from the wind and any precipitation that may come. It’s also important for horses to have access to clean water to ensure that the horses will eat adequate amounts of feed and reduce the risk of impaction.

All horse owners need to take extra time observing horses during this cold snap to make sure all horses are okay. Ones who are feeling the effects of the cold will need extra attention.

Cattle concerns

Ambient temperatures can impact the amount of dry matter cattle eat, providing an opportunity to compensate for increased maintenance energy needs.

Producers either need to increase their animals’ feed intake or increase the energy density of the diet by feeding higher quality hay or adding more grain or fat to the grain mix, said UK beef specialist Jeff Lehmkuhler.

Lehmkuhler recommended that producers continue to monitor cows during the wintertime and make sure to maintain the animals’ body condition.

“Poor quality hay may not provide adequate energy to maintain gestating cows that are entering the third trimester,” he said. “Consider having the hay tested to determine if you need to supplement during times of possible cold stress, especially for the enduring cold spells.”

He said to consider separating younger and thinner cows that may not have the same internal insulation as conditioned older cows and supplement them accordingly or offer them higher quality forage if available. Coleman said equine owners can employ similar strategies and separate animals according to body condition score.

“Producers should move cows to fields with natural windbreaks or provide man-made windbreaks, which are not the same as a barn,” Lehmkuhler suggested. “Poorly managed barns combined with poor ventilation may actually hamper efforts to improve the environmental conditions.

Lastly, remember it is energy or calories that are really needed. If the protein level in the forage is adequate, do not make supplement decisions based on protein level; rather purchase the most affordable calories. Stay warm and keep the waterers flowing.”

Temperature limits

The lower critical temperature (LCT) value for cattle is the lowest temperature or wind chill at which no additional energy is required to maintain core body temperature.

The LCT for beef cattle, as provided by Lewandowski, is 59 degrees in the summer, 45 degrees in the fall, 32 degrees in winter (with average hair coat), and 18 degrees in winter (with heavy hair coat).

“As the temperature declines below this lower critical value, the maintenance energy value for the animal is increased to maintain core body temperature,”  Lehmkuhler said. “Animals maintain core body temperature by increasing their metabolism resulting in greater heat production, as well as other heat conservation strategies such as reducing blood flow to the extremities, shivering and increased intake.”

Hide thickness

Lehmkuhler said several things can influence lower critical temperature value.

“Both external and internal insulation influences the LCT. External insulation is basically the depth and thickness of the hair coat, condition of the hair coat and thickness of the hide,” he said. “Thin-hided breeds such as dairy breeds tend to have a lower insulating factor than thick-hided breeds like Herefords. The condition of the hair coat is extremely important as an external insulation barrier.”

The hair coat acts as insulation similar to home attic insulation that traps air, enhancing the insulating value. If the hair is wet and full of mud, air is excluded, reducing the insulating value and increasing heat loss from the skin to the environment.

The density of the hair coat and if it is wet or dry impacts the wind chill temperatures at which cold stress is considered mild, moderate or severe. As little as 0.1 inch of rain can immediately impact cold stress severity by matting the hair down reducing its insulating ability.

Acclimation time, hide thickness, fat cover and other factors will also influence the degree of cold stress that animals experience.


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