Keep cow herd healthy in winter weather


SALEM, Ohio – Without a scarf and hat, January winds can feel like a million pins scraping across your face.

Without gloves, your fingers feel so cold and stiff you can hardly bend your fingers to release gate latches.

Imagine how those cows out on pasture must feel.

Bundled beneath layers of thermal protection, farmers venture out to check livestock in temperatures cold enough to freeze newborn calves to the ground.

Even with the best intentions, livestock specialists say it’s easy for many to rush through chores and get back into the house and out of the wind before more snow falls.

Along the way, we’re forgetting the extra care animals need during the winter months.

Toleration. Luckily, animals have a much higher tolerance for cold than humans do.

The comfort range for cattle is 40-70 degrees, and horses can stand 10-80 degrees.

But there’s more to consider: wind chill and wet animals.

Lower critical temperature (LCT) is the temperature below which an animal must burn extra energy to keep warm.

The lower critical temperature for cows with dry winter coats is about 30 degrees, but jumps to 59 degrees for wet cows, according to John Hall, an animal scientist at Virginia Tech.

Cold outside. Research from Kansas and Iowa indicates that maintenance energy requirements of the cow increase by 1 percent for each degree below the lower critical temperature.

For wet cows, the rule of thumb is 2 percent of every degree below LCT.

With cold temperatures and high winds, energy requirements can easily jump 25 percent to 35 percent above expected levels.

Losing condition. If the energy is not supplied as extra nutrition, cows will burn fat and lose weight to keep warm.

For the majority of Ohio cow herds – those who calf in the spring – this is one of the most important times in gestation.

The last third of pregnancy counts for two-thirds of fetal growth, according to Ohio State University extension beef specialist Steve Boyles.

If cows are losing body condition to keep warm right now, they’re also hurting their chances of breeding back in the spring and cutting back on their calf’s chance of survival.

Smart feeding. Cattle exposed to cold temperatures need extra energy.

Corn, with twice the energy of hay, is often cheaper to buy based on cost per unit of energy, Boyles said.

However, forages create more internal heat as the animal digests them than do grains and protein feeds.

With this year’s less-than-stellar hay quality, Boyles recommends producers test their hay and work with a feed representative to develop a supplement program.

“It’s not too late to test feeds. Push the pencil on your costs and figure what’s best,” he urged.

He also said protein lick tubs, often criticized for their expense, can be a good option for producers who need convenience. Other producers can opt for pelleted supplements.

Other helpers. Boyles said there are steps producers can take to minimize the increase in feed requirements.

Pasturing cows on south-facing slopes with plenty of sunshine helps cows avoid sloppy and muddy areas.

According to Boyles, cattle will voluntarily seek shelter in wooded areas or on hillsides out of direct wind.

He recommends providing a windbreak or other shelter. If putting animals indoors, he stressed the importance of ventilation.

“The barn doors staying open is critical. What we consider cold, cows may not. Just getting them out of the wind is a big help,” he said.

“You can reduce the severity of the effective temperature, when their metabolism goes up to keep them warm,” he said.

Producers can also provide bedding to keep their livestock off frozen or muddy and wet ground.

Temperature change. With this year’s unpredictable weather – yo-yoing from mild to warm to freezing cold all in a matter of days – producers should take an extra careful look at their herd, Boyles said.

Weather this winter will keep producers on their toes.

“With all the temperature changes, animals tend to get sicker faster. It’s the same with humans,” Boyles said.

Still need a drink. Another important aspect of winter herd management is water availability.

Boyles doesn’t favor farm ponds as a water source because of inherent risks of cows falling through the ice and drowning. Boyles said he nearly drowned years ago while trying to rescue a cow that had fallen through the ice on his own farm.

In addition, cows or any livestock approaching those banks will inevitably break down the bank, he said.

“Plus you’ve got to break ice all the time so they can get to the water, and keep it broken so they don’t go out on the ice and fall through. It can be a headache,” he said.

Heated water. Where available, Boyles suggests heated waterers. But they aren’t without flaws either, he cautioned.

Drinkable water should be 40-65 degrees, but sometimes there’s a “runaway” – the thermostat malfunctions and heats water to a much higher temperature.

“If you stick your finger in there and burn the skin off, it’s too hot,” he said.

Boyles also cautioned against electrocution and stray voltage flowing through heated troughs.

“Keeping the cows out of the wind and keeping them dry are probably the best things we can do at this point,” Boyles said.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at

For a month-by-month herd health checklist, visit


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