As the wind howls and the mercury drops, people tend to layer on more coats and burrow deeper into their quilts. Unlike humans, cattle don’t have the opportunity to go lay by a fireplace and warm themselves when things get cold. Fortunately, their heavy coats of hair insulate and keep them warm during the chilly days.
If you’ve ever seen a herd of cattle with backs covered in snow, it doesn’t mean that they’re not taken care of. It’s a sign that their coats are doing a good job of providing so much insulation that the snow doesn’t even melt from their body heat!
Todd Krispense (my father-in-law) is a multi-generational rancher and cattleman. For this article, he shared some of the practices that they implement for keeping their cattle comfortable during the winter season.
When it’s time to go out and care for your livestock, the first step is to make sure you are well prepared. By bundling up in warm layers and plenty of outer garments (coats and coveralls), you can avoid rushing through chores while you focus on how cold your body is. Instead, you’ll be able to take longer and do a better, more thorough job of caring for your herd.
Study Your Animals
While you do chores, take time to watch your animals’ behavior. Are they laying down, contentedly chewing their cud? Or are they extremely hunched up and not eating? The latter can be a sign of stress, so keep an eye out for that.
Whether your water source is a stock tank and hydrant or a pond in a pasture, you need a plan to make sure your cattle will have access to fresh water despite cold winter temperatures.
If you’re using a well and water hydrant, make sure to insulate and prepare both before winter hits. If you have floats in your stock tanks, consider unhooking them to avoid any freezing up.
One trick that Todd himself uses is to just unscrew the threads enough that the water trickles a little all night long. So long as the wind doesn’t blow on it and the temperature is above zero, it shouldn’t freeze. If you have other hoses around the hydrant, make sure to unhook and drain them before properly storing away.
Using ponds as a main source of water can be challenging, as the ice will continually need chopped during particularly cold spells. When you do go to chop the ice, make sure you chop in a place in an easily accessible place, where the herd is standing nearby. If not, you’ll run the risk of the water freezing again before they are able to drink.
Other natural sources of water can include a stream, river or continually flowing spring that never freezes.
Cattle are herd animals. While they might go up to drink separately when confined in a feedlot, cattle in a large pasture will generally all want to drink at the same time. If one animal is not able to make it to the water by the time the rest of the herd starts to leave, they will skip drinking in order to leave with the rest of the cattle. It’s important to make sure there is adequate water available for all animals to get a chance to drink.
Todd explains that his preferred source of water is a tank, as he can fill it during the morning and the ground temperature during the day will keep it from freezing. Since cattle do not generally drink water during the night, it’s good to avoid filling tanks in the evening, as they will be frozen by morning.
When feeding cattle during the winter, make sure to increase the feed quantity enough to meet their nutritional needs during cold weather. Grain is a high energy source that helps produce body heat and can be fed in higher quantities as needed.
Make sure to use good quality feed in your rations. Pay attention to body condition not only during winter but especially in the weeks leading up to it. Fat acts as insulation and works alongside a thick coat of winter hair to keep cattle warm.
If you really study the habits of your herd, you might notice that, when a storm or bad weather event is coming with moisture or a lot of snow, cattle bodies will tell them to eat more ahead of time. Once there’s a hard snow they won’t want to eat very much (especially if their feed is covered in snow).
After the moisture has passed, they will resume eating and drinking.
Part of caring for your herd during the winter is planning ahead. If you see that a spell of nasty weather is coming in, do what you can ahead of time to make life easier. Buy or order extra feed and make sure it is stored away properly in a dry place. Be sure that your vehicles or feed trucks have the fuel treated and are parked in places that you can easily access if they need to be worked on after the cold weather hits.
We typically don’t give steers in our feedlot pens bedding unless the weather is extremely bitter. But my brother-in-law’s cow/calf herd gets given bedding just as soon as the weather starts to get worse. Even though the calves can be born during the bitterest parts of winter, on a sunny day with no wind you will see them out running and frolicking around.
If the steers in the dry lots do need some bedding, round or square bales of straw are rolled out in the pens for them to bed down in.
If you look around our cattle pens, you notice that the shelters are three-sided buildings that face open to the south. During the winter days, the sun can shine all the way into the back of the shelters.
Wind protection is a big concern during the bitterest of days. When we confine animals into pens, they aren’t allowed to find the natural shelter and protection that they might normally find in nature. Cattle don’t need to be inside a heated barn, but the protection offered by a three-sided shed or a thick hedgerow of trees can be very helpful to offer a wind block.
Do your best to pay attention to your animals and their habits. Make sure that cattle are kept comfortable in cold weather, and provide plenty of access to shelter, feed and water, as well as bedding if necessary.