Thursday, January 14, 2016

Managing Cattle in Cold Weather

Bitter cold temperatures and extremes in wind chills are particularly stressful for groups of cattle that have not adequately acclimated to such conditions. The most susceptible animals are newborn calves in cow-calf operations and new cattle arriving in feedlots. Cattle that lack body condition for insulation also may be at risk from cold weather.

Most cattle can easily handle cold weather conditions if they are dry and maintain dry hair coats, even if temperatures are sub-zero. The most adverse conditions occur around freezing (32 degrees) when cattle get wet and the pens turn sloppy and muddy. The presence of moisture or mud on the animal draws heat from the animal's body at a much faster rate than when the animal is drier in extreme cold temperatures.

The ideal wintertime temperatures for feedlot cattle are around 20 degrees. At these temperatures, the snowfall that does occur is normally drier and will blow off the animal. Feedlot surfaces also remain firm and allow cattle easier access to feed bunks.

Healthy, dry, well-conditioned and well-fed cattle can handle wind chills of 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, but tissue damage may start to occur when wind chills drop to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

There are a number of things that can be done in feedyards and other cattle holding areas both before and after major weather events.

Smooth or knock down rough frozen pen surfaces with a blade or harrow. Sharp edges that form when cattle tracks freeze can cause bruising of the feet which can lead to foot injury. When pen surfaces are rough, cattle don't make their way to feed or water often enough which can cause decreased performance.

Bedding such as wheat straw, corn cobs, or corn stalks can be used to help insulate cattle from the cold ground during severe cold outbreaks. These are better for bedding than hay-like materials because they are less palatable. Cattle will be less likely to eat the bedding and more likely to stay on the ration provided in the bunks. In feed yards, apply bedding after feeding to minimize bedding consumption.

Accumulation of snow in the pens can cause cattle bunching or piling on, which can lead to increased death losses. When heavy snowfall or drifting snow occurs, remove the snow from the pens before the next storm arrives.

It is important to keep feedlot animals from going off feed during even the worst of weather conditions. Erratic feed intake can result in digestive problems and loss of performance, possibly even death in severe cases. Cattle that are within 30 to 45 days of slaughter are particularly prone to go off feed and can be difficult to get back on feed. Moving cattle to a higher roughage, storm ration may be advisable.

Terry Mader, beef cattle specialist, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Artwork: Cattle in Winter, 1862
Animal Husbandry and Livestock Books
The Corral
The Illustrated Guide to Cows