GOSHEN COUNTY, Wyo. – Nobody, despite what they may say, really likes the cold.
Having to wear more and more clothing, dealing with chapped lips, cracked fingers and the feeling you’ll never be warm again, are all parts of living through winter on the Great Plains. But, for cattle producers particularly, the season brings its own set of unique challenges.
“The winter months, especially the cold, windy days in February and March, are pretty tough,” said Steve Paisley, interim director and beef cattle specialist at the University of Wyoming’s James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center near Lingle, Wyo.
“In the winter time, we’re typically feeding harvested forage to cows,” he said. “The cold weather can affect their nutritional requirements, their energy needs.”
Cattle, being ruminants, do fare better in the cold than other animals. Fermentation of the feed in their gut does create some heat, which gives them a leg up on all but the coldest days, Paisley said.
Research has shown that, for every degree below 20-degrees Fahrenheit the temperature decreases, the typical cow’s energy requirements increase by about 1 percent, Paisley said. In other words, with a sustained temperature of zero degrees, the energy requirements for the animal increase by 20 percent.
And that’s just to maintain their status quo. As energy requirements increase, rate-of-gain can decrease to the point where the animals can only take in enough feed to get by.
“When we’re looking at extended periods of cold, we need to look at the nutrient value of what we’re feeding,” said Aaron Berger, Beef Systems specialist with the Kimball-Banner County Extension in Kimball, Neb. “We may need to feed a little more to meet that need, or we may need to find a feed or hay that has a little more energy in it.”
Paisley, a cattle producer himself, said his feeding strategy for extreme cold weather includes laying out a little extra feed in the late afternoon to carry his animals through the night. With fresh food in their bellies, the extra internal heat from fermentation in the rumen can be just what the doctor ordered, he said.
“There’s a lot of discussion about that,” Paisley said. “If you think about it, in a lot of cases we don’t necessarily increase the energy content of the diet, but we will perhaps bump up the total pounds fed.
“When cattle eat in the morning, all that feed would be fermented during the day,” he said. “But, because the cattle have an increased appetite, hit them with a little more feed in the late afternoon.”
Sometimes, it’s not necessarily the short burst of cold weather producers need to worry about, Paisley and Berger said. It’s the prolonged cold spells that really take a toll on a herd.
“In prolonged cold weather, you’re probably losing ground,” Paisley said. “Cattle probably aren’t consuming enough calories to maintain” growth and rate of gain.
As damaging can be wide fluctuations in temperatures, milder weather one day to bitter cold the next. But the most important factor for Berger and Paisley is to keep cattle – particularly newborn calves in the first few days of life – dry and out of the wind. With calving typically starting in mid- to late-March – while there’s still a good chance of late-season wintery storms and wind – providing cover for cows and their calves to avoid the worst of the blustery weather.
Most producers wouldn’t have enough space to get their entire herd into a barn or some other type of totally enclosed shelter, Paisley said. But that isn’t really necessary. Even providing adequate cover and protection for cow-calf pairs in the first few days after calving can make a difference.
“And getting that calf dried off when the temperatures are cold is really important,” Berge said. “Getting cows and calves in an area where there’s protection to get out of the wind can sure help them.
“Once those calves are dried off and have nursed, are a few days old, the cold doesn’t seem to bother them as much,” he said. “Once they’re three- to five-days old, calves can handle a fair amount of cold weather. But they have less body mass, so cold and wet conditions are very challenging to them.”
There are also a few proactive steps producers can take in the weeks leading up to the onset of cold weather. Berger suggests taking a hint from animals in the wild and letting cattle fatten up a bit in the late fall as a buffer against the changing seasons.
“It’s valuable to have cattle in good condition going into the winter, so they have fat reserves to insulate them from the cold,” he said. “And fat reserves can serve as an additional energy source when it’s cold.
“It’s all about watching the cattle in the fall, going into the winter, making sure they’re in adequate condition to handle the weather stress,” Berger said. “Pay attention to what’s happening in the fall, in the September to October time frame, to make sure they’re in adequate health going
into the winter.”