By Sandi Alswager Karstens, University of Nebraska
Bitter cold temperatures and extremes in wind chills likely will continue this winter in the High Plains and upper Midwest regions of the U.S. These conditions are particularly stressful for groups of cattle that have not adequately acclimated to such conditions, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln beef specialist said.
The most susceptible animals are newborn calves in cow-calf operations and new cattle arriving in feedlots, said Terry Mader, UNL beef cattle specialist at the Haskell Agricultural Laboratory near Concord. 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," Mader said. "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."
One plus for cattle producers and feeders, Mader said, is that since cold temperatures and some snow have been around for several weeks, most cattle are generally already acclimated to current conditions.
Ideal feedlot temps
Mader said 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.
"Most cattle by this time in the winter have developed their winter coats and are able to withstand wind chills well below zero," Mader said.
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.
Mader recommends that managers 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," he said.