Winterize Your Cow Herd

Published on: 09:20AM Dec 28, 2009

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By Dan Goehl, DVM

Winterizing the truck, tractors and whatever other equipment you have is often second nature. Do not forget about the livestock. This can be a difficult time for animals. There are several areas that you should pay careful attention to.

Depending on how far north you are winter shelter may vary. Most cattle in Missouri can make due with windbreaks or roof and a windbreak. A wooded area is often adequate to fulfill this purpose.

The very worst scenario is to provide shelter that does not have adequate room. It is paramount that there is room for every animal and enough airflow to allow any heat provided by the animals to dissipate. Cattle that are given access to a building that is too small with inadequate airflow will build up excess heat. This will cause them to get warm and increase the moisture in the air. This “steaming” of the cattle is perilous when they are forced to leave the shelter for food and water.

Strive to keep the temperature in the shelter the same of very near the outside ambient temperature. It is best to provide 25 sq. ft. of area per head of well ventilated shelter space. For animals in a drylot area mounds can also serve as shelter. These rounded mounds of earth will provide an area for the animals to get away from mud as the ground thaws and also allow for wind breaks.  Mounds should have a 30 – 50% slope. 

One of the most neglected nutrients in the winter months is water. Water is essential to life and is just as vital in the winter as it is in the heat of summer. Keeping waters open in freezing weather should be a top priority. Access to the water needs to be available without competition. Insufficient space for animals to drink, low flow rates and low storage capacity can all discourage water consumption. The water itself can also have an affect; high mineral content or unfamiliar taste can also discourage water consumption to the point that feed intake is reduced. Adequate trough size and flow rate are both important to ensure a proper water supply. 

The size of the pen will influence the amount of trough space needed. Two feet of water tank perimeter should be provided for every 25 head if cattle drink throughout the day; however, if the entire herd drinks at once, two feet of tank perimeter is necessary per head. For pasture or range systems, use water tanks with a capacity that can provide at least a one-day supply. Because range cattle usually all drink within a short period of time one or two times per day, the watering system (pump, pipe diameter, reservoir, etc.) should be able to supply the entire day’s supply within four hours. Feedlot watering systems require tanks with at least 50% of a one-day supply available, and the system should be able to provide the day’s supply within eight hours. Intensive grazing units can exist on smaller water systems as cattle in a close proximity to water will usually drink in smaller groups. A 500-lb animal on a 40 degree day will drink approximately 5 gallon of water.

Cattle are comfortable in an environment of around freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit). As the temperature drops below freezing and snow or other moisture occurs, cattle will need extra energy to keep warm and functioning. Moisture and wind chill can also drastically change the affect of the weather on feed requirements. Work with your nutritionist and veterinarian to determine what level of feeding is appropriate for your cattle in your area.
The cow calf operation may have some unique sheltering issues. This is especially true of fall calving herds. Fall calving can be a great management strategy in areas that offer the proper temperature ranges. Southern Iowa and Missouri fit this category. These calves however may need extra attention during a hard winter. It is a wise idea to have the ability to unroll bedding on the harshest of nights. Straw, cornstalks or hay can serve this purpose. 
Another practice that is utilized is calf shelter houses. These houses have creep gates or low level bars that allow only animals below a certain level to gain entrance. Keeping the mothers away allows for smaller shelter houses and protects the calves from being injured by over crowding. One last practice that I utilize is to offer the calves a sanctuary to eat. Offering a creep pen with high quality hay allows them to forage without competition from the cows.

Cattle can thrive in most environments throughout the United States. Common sense is usually the best guide when working on husbandry issues. If the animals are comfortable they will thrive and in return reward you with a profitable enterprise.

Dan Goehl, DVM, and his wife own and operate Canton Veterinary Clinic in Canton, MO, where Dan works primarily with stocker and cow/calf beef operations. Dan is also partner in Professional Beef Services, LLC, which offers herd consultation and helps in data management and marketing of beef cattle.

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