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Help Cattle Cope With Cold Weather

January 7, 2014
Calf Cold Weather
Cattle usually can deal with cold alone, but the combination of cold, wind and moisture can be deadly.  

Source: NDSU Agriculture Communication

While humans are able to cope with this winter’s pattern of relatively warm temperatures followed by extremely cold temperatures in the northern Plains, cattle are not so lucky.

"As we prepare for another cycle of warm followed by cold, it is important to keep a few cattle management tips in mind," North Dakota State University Extension Service beef cattle specialist Carl Dahlen says.

Mammals are inherently equipped to deal with extreme temperatures. Within a range of certain temperatures, their body does not need to use any energy to stay warm or cool. However, when temperatures get below a critical temperature, animals must begin to use extra energy to stay warm.

The critical temperature for cattle depends on their hair coat. From fall to midwinter, the hair coat continues to grow and the critical temperature for cattle decreases. With a heavy winter coat, the critical temperature for cattle is around 18 F. Below that temperature, the energy demands for a cow to maintain her body temperature increase.

With temperatures this winter easily reaching below minus 30 at some point, livestock producers need to make some adjustments to their management schemes to protect their cattle.

"To deal with the increased energy demands, we can simply increase the amount of feed delivered to the herd," Dahlen says. "However, if cows are being maintained on relatively poor-quality feeds or temperatures get too extreme, altering the amount of feed will not meet the increased requirements for the cattle. Feeds of higher nutrient quality (more energy dense) must be included to achieve the needed level of nutrition during cold spells."

Another strategy for dealing with the cold weather is to feed cattle at night. The heat from digestion peaks a few hours after a meal, so offering meals in the evening can help cattle cope with the cold nighttime temperatures.

Keeping cattle protected from the elements also is important. Cattle usually can deal with cold alone, but the combination of cold, wind and moisture can be deadly.

"Take steps to ensure cattle are out of the wind," Dahlen advises. "If natural windbreaks (trees, draws, etc.) are available, take advantage of them for choosing wintering sites. If no natural windbreaks exist, producers will need to take steps to make permanent or portable windbreaks to protect cattle from the wind. Portable panels are good options for producers maintaining cattle in relatively open country."

Once the wind is blocked, producers need to take active steps to combat moisture. The current weather pattern has moisture falling in the form of rain immediately prior to the extreme cold fronts moving into the area.

A bit of snow on the backs of cattle usually is OK, but if precipitation has the animals wet all the way to the skin, the critical temperature in most cattle is only 59 F. This means that a wet animal having to face a night of minus 30 temperatures is experiencing a cold that is almost 90 degrees below its critical temperature. In cases like this, the combination of cold and moisture easily could end up being deadly.

"Bedding may not always be necessary for wintering cow herds, but in cases where cattle are wet, bedding is a must," Dahlen says. "The purpose of bedding is to help keep cattle dry."

Moisture also can be a problem for animals at birth. Newborn calves are born wet and are very susceptible to frostbite, hypothermia and death as a result of cold temperatures. In mild cases of cold exposure, calves can lose the tips of their ears or maybe have hoof problems later in life. In severe cases, calves die.

A small proportion of producers in the region are just starting their calving seasons. The Cold Advisory for Newborn Livestock (CANL) forecasts, available through the National Weather Service website, are a tool that can help producers anticipate short-term weather patterns to ensure they are taking the right steps to protect calves born in extreme conditions.

The CANL is forecasting conditions for the next six to 36 hours that will impact newborn livestock. To learn more about the CANL for eastern North Dakota, visit http://www.crh.noaa.gov/fgf/?n=canl. The CANL for western North Dakota is available at http://www.crh.noaa.gov/bis/?n=canl.

Dahlen also urges producers to take care of themselves, their families and their employees during extreme weather conditions.

"The type of weather we’re receiving is very dangerous and, at a minimum, can cause permanent damage to exposed skin," he says. "We all want to make sure our cattle are fed and properly bedded as soon as a storm breaks or the temperatures plummet. Just take a few moments to make sure you are dressed appropriately before heading out the door."

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