As leaves begin to fall and nights get cooler, daily management of your cattle herd begins to change and take on new upcoming challenges. During the summer the main concerns included navigating consistent heat and providing plenty of water and shade. Winter, however, requires us to pull on coveralls, break the ice and set up a dry place out of the wind—in addition to providing plenty of quality feed.
Cattle can adapt well to cold temperatures and bitter winter weather when properly cared for.
While you likely won’t bring your cattle into the house to lay next to the fireplace, there are several steps you can implement to help your animals cope with harsh winter weather. These include:
- Ensuring good body condition before entering winter
- Setting up an adequate windbreak or run-in shelter
- Providing plenty of proper feed
- Providing access to non-frozen water
As Seasons Switch
Conditions can indeed be unpleasant for cattle during the hot summer days or cold winter nights. But spring and fall, with their extreme temperature fluctuations, can actually be harder on animal health.
During these times, it’s not uncommon to experience more sickness running through the herd as the hot/cold begins to take a toll on their immune systems. Work to be proactive and jump on early signs of sickness. Do what you can to reduce their stress by offering a comfortable resting place and plenty of fresh water.
As with most other areas of the homestead, it’s good to make a list of tasks around the barn/cattle facilities to tackle before cold weather comes knocking. Basic chores include cleaning out any feeders that could use a good scrubbing after a summer of use. Also check the watering systems and ensure all of the heating elements are in working order.
The shelter provided for cattle can range from a full barn to a simple windbreak. Regardless of what structure you choose, make sure it’s in good shape and well maintained so that it can do its job properly.
Repair barns or shelters to help reduce major drafts, while still keeping proper ventilation in mind. A more simple windbreak can be created with a shelterbelt (a group of trees in a row to help provide protection from the wind). You can even set up a group of round bales against each other or a fence lined with tin or metal sheeting to block cold winds.
Kolton Krispense, (a multi-generational cattle rancher, farmer and my husband!) recommends that, if any animals on your homestead do not have access to a body of water (such as a river or pond) and depend on a well, you should ensure a plan is in place in case electricity is knocked out and the well is unable to be run as normal.
I can remember times as a child when we would have an ice storm and the power would go out. My dad would pull the Ford tractor and generator out of the lean-to, back them up to the power pole in front of the house, and turn it on long enough for us to shower and do any necessary chores.
Cattle require plenty of fresh, clean water year-round, and a winter back-up plan is critical. By having a plan, you can turn what might have been an emergency situation into just an inconvenience.
It is also a good habit to check over your wells and waterers before winter even arrives. Order replacement parts and make repairs while the weather is still pleasant enough for outdoor jobs.
If not using heated waterers, be sure to invest in a good pair of coveralls and a quality axe for when you need to chop the ice.
Feed & Body Condition
Just like people stay warmer with multiple layers of clothing on, cattle will stay warmer when they have enough extra fat (insulation) and a good quality coat of winter hair on them before entering the colder months. If you have any cows preparing to calve later in the winter (known as spring-calving), it’s especially important to ensure they enter the colder season in good condition to avoid extra stress and compromised health.
During the winter, you should feed cattle a variety of dried forage, as access to fresh grass is extremely unlikely. To counteract the change in forage quality (dried as opposed to fresh), you’ll likely need to supplement larger quantities of the right grain into your cattle’s daily feed rations.
Last year during one of the most bitter cold snaps, the guys went out to the pens and began unrolling round bales for the cattle to bed down in.
I don’t think they had even finished unrolling a bale before the cattle curled up in it. To help reduce stress on your animals and offer another means of comfort, make sure you keep plenty of bedding on hand such as straw or hay to unroll during times of extra cold weather.
Supplies to Stockpile
Whether it’s a helpful tool to keep in the shed or something you will need to stock a quantity of, here is a list of suggested items to make sure you have on hand:
- Plenty of feed (both forage and grain)
- Salt and mineral
- Tightly-lidded containers (for feed storage)
- Mouse traps and barn cats
- Bedding (such as hay or straw)
- First-aid items (for when the vet can’t make it right away)
- Tools for breaking frozen water troughs (such as axes and ice picks)
- Heat lamps and bulbs
- Extensions cords
- Extra garden hoses (in case one freezes and splits)
- Water well and heated waterer components and parts
- Tractor and generator
- Fuel for machinery
Stocking up on necessary items can be very helpful, but preparedness can turn wasteful if improperly stored goods begin to spoil. If you decide to store an extra amount of grain or other feed, make sure you have the proper means to store it, such as an overhead bulk bin or trash cans/bins with well-fitted lids.
Keep the feed in a dry, dark place with enough ventilation to prevent dampness and mold. (Fungus could present a whole other problem for your herd.)
Winter preparation can certainly feel daunting. But don’t underestimate the sense of calm one gets from knowing animals are safely bedded down in the comfort of provided shelters. Just a little bit of forethought and hard work can go a long way to making sure your livestock stays comfortable and healthy all winter long.