How To Keep Your Cattle Healthy This Winter

Cold weather increases your cattle’s energy demands, so give them some help to ward off winter’s bite.

by Rachel Endecott
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock


How can I keep my cattle’s body condition scores in a healthy range through winter?


Body condition scores describe the relative fatness of cattle using a point system, where the low number is “emaciated” and the high is “obese.” Dairy and beef cattle use a different scoring system with the dairy one based on a 5-point scale and the beef on a 9-point scale. Because I’m a beef cattle specialist, I’ll be using the 9-point scale here.

Provide Quality Feed

Keeping cattle in good condition over winter will be most dependent on feed quality. If cattle will be grazing brown and dormant forage, it’s likely that the nutrient content will not be adequate to maintain body condition and they’ll require supplementation.

If cattle will be fed hay, I recommend sending a hay sample into a laboratory for a nutrient analysis. If you’re unfamiliar with how to collect or send in a sample, contact your local extension office for assistance. Once the results come back, they can be compared with the nutrient requirements for your production class of cattle and a ration can be balanced. Again, your local extension office will be able to assist with this process, as will your local feed supplier.

Set Up Shelter

Another consideration for overwintering cattle is protection from the elements. All livestock have a range of temperatures called the thermoneutral zone in which they don’t have to expend any energy to maintain body temperature. When the temperature drops below this zone, cattle have to use energy to warm up. That lower critical temperature depends on hair coat and weather conditions: With a summer or a wet-to-the-skin hair coat at any temperature, the lower critical temperature is quite warm at 59 degrees F. On the other hand, the lower critical temperature for a cow with a heavy winter coat is 18 degrees F.

Provide More Food

When a cow is experiencing cold stress, the major effect on nutrient requirements is an increased need for energy, which generally indicates the total amount of feed needs to be increased. A simple rule of thumb is to increase the amount of feed 1 percent for every degree of coldness below the appropriate lower critical temperature.

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In the short term, cattle can make behavioral changes to alter the temperature in their immediate environment, such as finding protection from the wind. In the long term, the hair coat is their main defense against cold in combination with those behavioral changes. Energy requirements will increase with wet, windy and cold conditions. Creating conditions where cattle are able to find protection from the elements will help ensure a healthy body condition during the winter season.

This article originally ran in the November/December 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.

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