Planning Key to Livestock Surviving Cold Weather

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

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by iStockphoto/Hans Slegers

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.

three brown horses eating hay in a snowy field

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.

a red highland calf standing next to a tree in the snow

Water, water, water

We all know how critical fresh, clean water is in the hot months. But water during extreme cold weather can be even more important than you might think.

Water is critical for digestion, as without it, the rumen cannot break down cellulose as efficiently. Animals will often not even attempt to eat unless they have an adequate water supply, even if you put their food right in front of them.

Don’t assume that animals can eat enough snow to make up for an adequate supply of fresh water, either. A cow needs 14 to 20 gallons of water a day, which would be a tremendous amount of snow to eat. Eating snow also lowers an animal’s core body temperature, making it more difficult for the animal to withstand bad weather. The people who estimate such things figure that it takes six times the amount of energy to melt snow than it does to just drink fresh water. That’s an energy deficit you can’t afford in a harsh winter environment.

Water needs to be at a temperature of 37 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit for animals to maximize their water intake. Water much colder than that will discourage them. Even a skim of ice over the water surface that might be easy to break through can be enough to keep them from drinking.

One of the best investments you can make is a freeze-proof automatic drinker. The equipment can be expensive to install, but if you select the right one for your environment, it can run efficiently and economically. You can install it yourself, but make sure there isn’t any stray voltage or electrical current that can shock your animals even mildly; it doesn’t take much to turn livestock totally away from drinking.

If a livestock drinker isn’t an option, tank heaters are a must. Make sure you install it so the electrical cord can’t be chewed on, or a clever critter can’t flip the heater out of the tank. Running the cords through PVC conduit and anchoring the conduit can fix that.

Tank heaters can be quite energy intensive; consider using a timer to allow the heater to run during the coldest part of the night and be off during the day, or to run a few hours on and a few hours off. If you can set up a small aquarium aerator pump to bubble air through your tank water and move the warm water around, that also can help minimize expense. Insulating the tank will help as well. You can build a plywood box around a tank quite easily and then stuff it with straw or hay, and place a cover over the open water (leaving an opening for drinking), which can help keep water available in all but the coldest and windiest weather.

Give them shelter

Shelter for livestock doesn’t have to include elaborate, heated barns, shut up tight against winter’s chill. In fact, it’s probably better if it doesn’t.

All livestock need fresh, clean air as much as they need fresh, clean water. A closed barn without good ventilation will allow ammonia fumes to build up from the urine and manure excreted. Those fumes can irritate lungs and nasal passages, making the animals more susceptible to respiratory problems including pneumonia.

Generally, livestock are fine in the open air, and if given access to a three-sided shed facing south or east, they can fend off the worst that winter has to offer. A tree belt also can offer adequate protection from the elements, provided the animals have enough to eat. Pigs are legendary for their ability to make nests and, if given good bedding material in a shed, they can make a toasty place to bed down and ride out the cold.

Even on the coldest nights, you may see your livestock bedding down out in the open air, preferring to be out in the open rather than inside a shed, but they will almost always appreciate that shelter during a freezing rain.

If you do keep your livestock in a barn, make sure there is adequate ventilation, either natural by open windows, louvers or vents, or mechanical by an exhaust fan to exchange the warm ammonia-laden air with fresh. Also, be careful about keeping the animals inside, letting them get warm, and then turning them out into the freezing cold. The dramatic change can stress their systems and lead to illness; you’re better off to keep it one way or the other most of the time.

In whatever, if any, shelter you decide to use, keep the bedding clean. Dirty bedding is a breeding ground for bacteria and may harbor viruses, and it’s difficult to keep warm if the bedding is damp and cold.

four white embden geese huddled together walking through snow

Winter babies

Planning your calving or lambing season for after the worst of the winter weather has passed is a good idea, but Mother Nature will rarely let go so easily and usually has a spring blizzard or two she wants to share with us.

Baby animals are born with a limited ability to thermoregulate — maintain their core body temperatures. Wet, newborn livestock are at great risk of chilling quite rapidly unless they are dried off. A good mom of any species is usually quite eager to take care of this herself by licking her calf or lamb, and her attention will help stimulate its circulation, helping the process along.

If Mom has had a hard delivery, or for whatever reason is disinterested in her baby, you might have to step in and help out by drying the calf in Mom’s place. Keep some old towels stocked in a “birthing kit” for just such a purpose, but if towels aren’t available, a handful of straw or hay will work in a pinch.

If you come upon a newborn that is already chilled, get it warmed up as soon as possible. Immersing a chilled lamb in a bucket of warm-but-not-scalding water (keep head clear) has brought many little ones back from the brink. Once they are warmed up, keep them under a heat lamp or in a warm, dry place until they can get over the chill and back on their feet.

Calves and lambs, remarkably, are able to maintain their own body temperature within about 24 hours, if they are properly dried off at birth and get a chance to get a good hearty meal or two of colostrum. The energy and fat contained in those first few meals are critical to give them the energy to fight off cold stress and maintain good health. Piglets do not have a thick coat and also take much longer to develop control over their body temperature. Winter farrowing may require heat lamps for a couple of weeks unless the nest is snug and tight.

Lambs, interestingly enough, have a storage supply of “brown fat” at birth. This fat is metabolized quite easily and provides an energy boost for newborns. This brown fat is different from the white fat that animals later lay down, and once it’s gone it is not replaced, but for a newborn in a cold environment, it can provide a lifesaving energy resource. Fortunately, with a little preparation, young farm animals can usually withstand winter’s caprice quite well.

On occasion, winter might feel like a season we would rather do without, but with some forethought and preparation, you can help your livestock minimize its hardships. And, unless you live at the North Pole, you can count on the big chill passing by, and it will soon be time to complain about the heat again!

By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper, by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. She has learned to manage all sorts of livestock in all sorts of weather conditions at her Kansas farm.