As the calendar turns a new year, cattle producers need to consider how to help their herds weather the winter. Dr. Marc Caldwell, a Field Service Veterinarian with the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center, responds to some common questions about best practices for winter herd management.
Do cows nutritional needs differ in the colder months?
Dr. Caldwell: Cold weather increases the energy needs of cattle. It’s always important to test your hay and supplements, so you know exactly the quality of feed you’re providing. Cattle may be able to get by with poor quality hay in mild weather, but once the cold arrives they need energy dense, good quality feed. When cold fronts are predicted be sure to provide additional supplements (grain, protein mixes, and range cubes) a few days before and throughout the cold weather. Calves display malnutrition at the time of extreme weather. They get down, cold and die of exposure. Cold stress also has effects on the immune systems. Scours outbreaks often occur 1-2 weeks after a bad winter storm. Adult cattle experience malnutrition more maliciously. Adults display weight loss, poor pregnancy rates, and/or trouble delivering and raising calves. February and March are often the worst. By this time cattle have endured the long winter and don’t have large stores of energy to endure any more tough weather.
Is excess moisture a problem in the winter? If so, how should you deal with it?
Dr. Caldwell: The worst weather scenarios start with a cold rain and followed by precipitous temperatures that drop below freezing. If cattle hair coats get wet through and through they can’t maintain a core of insulation and heat seeps out of them at a faster rate. When wet coats freeze the situation gets dangerous. Snow alone is less of a problem because snow often does not penetrate down through the thicker layer of the coat. Cold rain is more dangerous. Unfortunately we get a lot of that in Tennessee.
Again, any form of shelter is key. Barns, sheds, dense trees or rows of hay bales.
Should you worry about calves born during the winter?
Dr. Caldwell: It’s not uncommon for calves to be born in January and February. Most years that doesn’t create a problem. Calves less than a month old are most susceptible to cold weather. Emergency shelters are important when storms are coming.
What other considerations should ranchers take into account?
Dr. Caldwell: You may have seen cattle eating snow during the winter. It’s tempting to think they get enough water through that and you don’t have to get out and bust up water troughs, but the snow does not provide enough water. If possible, try to keep water troughs open at all times so cattle have unlimited access to water. Nursing cows require a lot of water to make milk. Imagine every mouth full of water a cow doesn’t get means less milk and slower growing calves. Lighter calves mean lighter pay checks.
When is it dangerous for cattle to be out?
Dr. Caldwell: Winter rain followed by severe drops in temps are the worst scenario. Unfortunately, most cattlemen in Tennessee don’t have shelters large enough for their entire herds. And, such shelters may not be necessary. Though storms can be tough, they’re mercifully short. If your cattle are well fed and get out of the wind, they should get through the worst a Tennessee winter can throw at them.
For more information about herd management, visit the UT Extension publications website at extension.tennessee.edu/publications and enter the search term “cattle” or contact your local county UT Extension agent.
Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. ag.tennessee.edu
W. Alan Bruhin