Cold Weather Cow Care

Written by Dave Sparks DVM, Oklahoma State University


Cold Weather Cow Care
Winter brings a special set of challenges for cattle producers. The need for labor and management increase just as forage quality, feed availability, and hours of daylight available to get things done decrease. Just in case this doesn’t offer enough of a challenge, this is also calving season when we are bringing into the operation the product we will have to turn into profits in order to be here next winter.

The first consideration each day in winter time livestock care should be water. Water is the first limiting nutrient and although daily intake goes down in cold weather, adequate consumption every day is still vital. Cows can’t utilize frozen water. They may be able to meet part of their water requirement on a temporary basis by eating snow, but they also expend calories melting the snow and warming it to body temperature. If you water your cows in ponds be sure to cut ice at least once daily. Feed the cows in the area where you have provided access to the pond water, so they can find it before it freezes again. When cattle are thirsty they walk out on the ice, especially if it has snow on it, and can follow through in a bunch when they encounter thinner ice near the center of the pond. If you water your cattle in tanks, be aware that extended cold weather may result in a tank full of ice with no room for water. One producer painted the south sides of his tanks black to absorb more solar energy. While it didn’t completely solve ice problems, it worked well in marginal conditions and helped slow the ice buildup in extreme cold weather. Another idea that has been used successfully is to secure a large, black inflated inner tube in the tank where the cattle can drink out of the hole in the center. The water in the center of the tube will remain open except in the most extreme conditions. If you use automatic waterers, check them daily to avoid catastrophe. They can only meet the water requirements of the cattle if they keep working normally. If a heater quits or a lid doesn’t close properly they can freeze up fast. With electric waterers or tank heaters be careful for shorts or bare wire. Stray voltage of only a few volts can cause cattle not to drink.

While warm, bedded, barns would be above the aspirations of most beef cows, some shelter should be provided, at least from the wind. Solid or semi-solid fences, trees, or brush areas are usually adequate. Three sided sheds are better, but must be cleaned out occasionally to avoid other problems.
Cattle are warm blooded creatures and must maintain a constant core temperature. Everyone knows that nutritional requirements increase in cold weather, but few stockmen know how much the energy requirement changes. Critical temperature is defined as the lower end of the cow’s comfort zone and is the temperature at which you need to increase feed provided. Hair and fat both serve as insulators. The critical temperature for cows with good winter coats and good body condition is 20° F. As the temperature drops below this you need to feed these cows about 1% more for each degree drop below the critical temperature. For thin or short haired cows the critical temperature is about 30°F and you will need to feed an extra 2% for each degree below this. When cows are wet the critical temperature is about 50° F.

Some health concerns, such as bovine respiratory disease, may not be as prevalent in cold weather as they are when there is a large difference between high and low daily temperatures. Other health problems, however, can take up the slack. Cold weather usually increases feet problems. Frozen rough ground causes abrasions on the feet. When the ground thaws, especially if it remains wet and muddy, conditions are ideal for the entry of infection at these abraded sites. Maintaining a graveled area around water sources and feeders can help a lot. Cattle tend to congregate more around feed grounds, which can become a high risk factor for calf pneumonia and calf diarrhea. Moving the feeding area around the pasture is a good idea, especially after the calves start to arrive. Internal and external parasites can also be a concern. While winter is not a high risk time for the spread of roundworms, those adult worms living in your cow’s digestive system can be cheating you out of a lot of nutrition that your cows need. If you didn’t worm your cows in the fall, worming in cold weather might stop this loss and help your cows get off to a better start on green grass in the spring. Lice can be a serious winter problem as well. Watch closely for dark discoloration around the head and face or excess scratching and rubbing. Control lice by spraying if you can find a warm sunny day. Powders work well if applied evenly when temperatures remain cold and wetting is not advisable.

For me (and for many of you) the biggest cold weather challenge is dealing with the desire to get it done and go to the fire. The days when it is hardest to work outside are the days when your cattle need you the most. A little extra time making sure your herd is comfortable, healthy and well fed now can make a lot of difference when you are looking at that sale barn check next fall.