Keeping cattle healthy in winter weather

December 28, 2008 06:00 PM

Snow and high winds are a bad combination for previously unstressed calves waiting to be shipped or put on winter feed rations.

South Dakota State University Extension Range Livestock Production Specialist Eric Mousel said that to protect calves from the onset of respiratory problems, it's advisable to keep livestock dry and out of the wind as best as possible. Although many herds remain out on winter range and pasture with little protection from the wind, moving livestock into protected areas as soon as possible may reduce potential problems.

Colder temperatures also raise nutrient requirements of both cows and calves. Extra, high quality feed may be necessary to help livestock maintain their core body temperatures and keep the immune system functioning properly.

Calves that are showing signs of respiratory problems should be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible. The sooner calves are treated after showing signs of sickness, the more effective the treatment will be. Continuous use of antibiotics as a preventative treatment for respiratory problems is discouraged as drug resistance can become a problem.

Another problem likely to arise following the winter storm stress is bloody scours as a result of coccidiosis. Bovatec® and Deccox® are examples of feed additives that are effective against the pathogenic bovine coccidia. Deccox® however, also can be used as treatment to reduce the effects of an acute outbreak. The clinically-affected animals should be treated with sulfa drugs, and then the coexistent cattle should receive Deccox® to prevent further cycling of the oocysts. Contact your veterinarian for additional treatment recommendations.

"Another concern producers may be experiencing is water availability for livestock as a result of freezing temperatures, no electric service, or both,” Mousel said. "After a short adjustment period, cows will consume adequate amounts of snow to meet water requirements. Eating snow is a learned behavior rather than instinct, therefore an adjustment period is needed for the cows to learn how to eat snow. Generally, it takes three days for cows to adapt to eating snow.”

Cattle do well when snow is their only water source, as long as there is adequate snow present, and it is not hard or crusted over. It is important to monitor cow and snow condition on a daily or second day basis. A lack of water reduces feed intake, and cows can loose condition fairly rapidly when water is deficient. Studies in Canada have shown some cows have gone for extended periods with snow as the sole water source without significant adverse effects.

But Mousel cautioned that if snow hardens and crusts over due to drifting, rain, or thaw/freeze with the warmer temperatures, animals will need to be provided with an alternative source of water. Substituting snow for water is not a cure-all, but it can buy some time until conditions improve.

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