Planning Key to Livestock Surviving Cold Weather

Clean water in stock tanks and fresh air will help your livestock face extreme weather conditions.

| January/February 2013

  • Surviving Cold Weather
    A herd of cattle and sheep remain warm even on a frosty landscape.
    Photo By iStockphoto/Hans Slegers
  • Horses Eat Forage
    Horses take advantage of a fresh bale of hay.
    Photo By iStockphoto/Steve Everts
  • Highland Calf in Snow
    A Highland calf has no difficulty standing in the snow.
    Photo By iStockphoto/Arne Bramsen
  • Geese in Snow
    Geese waddle through the snow.
    Photo By iStockphoto/Edd Westmacott

  • Surviving Cold Weather
  • Horses Eat Forage
  • Highland Calf in Snow
  • Geese in Snow

As you look out of your warm window on a cold winter’s day at a herd of cattle with snow piled on their backs, it can be pretty tempting to feel sorry for them and want to move them into a nice, airtight barn completely shut off from the elements. Don’t fall for it. Those animals have some very nifty adaptations to withstand some pretty extreme weather. However, we can give them a little help to make the big chill of winter a little less harsh.

How do animals handle the cold?

That layer of snow on their backs? It looks like it should be freezing them to death, but it’s a pretty good indicator of how much body heat they aren’t losing. In the winter, animals grow a long, sometimes fuzzy hair coat, which thanks to piloerection — the ability of those hair follicles to rise up — traps warm, dry air next to their skin, keeping heat in and cold out. Think of it like the roof on your house: Snow on the roof means the roof is well insulated, and little heat is radiating out.

Livestock generally have blocky body types, which also helps to keep their core temperature up. It’s much harder to lose heat from a square shape than it is from a narrow one, which can be a problem in hot weather but serves as an advantage in the cold. This pertains to dry cold though. A freezing rain, on the other hand, will plaster that hair coat down to the skin and remove any and all insulating properties. Animals will shiver to try to keep warm, and you can bet that a freezing rain will get them shivering in their hooves long before a dry snowfall.

Chow time

Researchers estimate that it has to get down to 37 degrees Fahrenheit before most animals reach their lower critical temperature (LCT), the temperature at which they have to begin expending energy to maintain their core body temperature. That’s when having access to good quality forage becomes vitally important. Those researchers also estimate that for every degree drop in temperature past the LCT, the energy needs of cattle increase by 2 percent.

Hay that is moldy, dusty or has a poor nutrient value will have a negative impact on your livestock’s body conditions and their ability to generate body heat. Horses are able to simply increase their consumption to make up for the lack of good energy in the hay and may be able to eat enough to get by, although you are going to go through your hay supply much faster.

Once a ruminant fills up, however, it isn’t able to eat more until it gets through the entire rumination process, so the amount of feed it ingests stays roughly the same. If it is poor quality hay, they can’t eat more to make up for the lack of nutrition in it. And if the hay supply is bad, as many stockmen had to deal with after the drought of 2012, it will more than likely be necessary to supplement your livestock in order to keep their body condition good and enable them to withstand winter. In fact, one of the most important things you can do to prepare for cold weather and maximize your feed dollar is to send your animals into winter in the best body condition possible.

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