Cattle Not Immune to the Cold

Cows eating hay after a winter snow. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Don’t cattle do better in colder temperatures? That’s a question University of Minnesota Livestock Extension Educator Emily Wilmes hears in the wintertime.

Yes, cattle are warm-bodied and therefore can withstand colder temperatures than humans. But the animal’s success in winter depends on a number of factors, including weather conditions and the overall health of the animal.

The biggest thing that helps cattle stay warm in cold temperatures is their bodies. By winter, most cattle have winter coats. If you look at them at this time of year, they look shaggy, she said.

Cattle also get help warming their bodies through their stomach.

“Cattle are ruminants, so they have a huge 25-plus gallon stomach compartment that is fermenting feedstuff and producing heat,” said Wilmes. “So they typically do a little better in colder weather.”

Because of how they’re built, it takes a low critical temperature for cattle to feel cold. Wilmes said that the critical temperature for a cow or steer with a thick and dry winter coat is about 18 degrees F.

When the temperature dips lower, livestock may start to experience cold stress, defined as when the animal’s body needs to start working harder to keep warm.

Since farmers can’t move cows into their spare bedrooms or basements, they use other methods to avoid cold stress on cattle.

Simple shelter, said Wilmes, where cattle can stay dry and be protected from the wind makes a big difference. Examples of good shelter for cattle would be a barn or three-sided shed with straw or corn-stalk bedding.

But for pastured cattle that don’t have access to shelter, Wilmes said a windbreak can be used. Windbreaks can be natural barriers such as trees, or artificial barriers like wood or steel paneling.

Another way to help cattle get through cold streaks is through nutrition, Wilmes said. A rule of thumb is that cattle need about a 1 percent increase in their energy per degree that’s below their critical temperature.

“Increase the amount of energy we’re giving them, just so they have more energy to burn to keep themselves warm.”

How much cattle are fed needs to be monitored closely though, because overfeeding can lead to metabolic upset.

The extra feed can get to be expensive too, so giving livestock some good hay is another option.

“Just the fermentation of fiber gets that rumen going,” she said, referring to the largest stomach compartment of a cow, will help.

Cattle with increased food intake are going to need an increase in water, said Wilmes. If cattle don’t have ample water, they won’t increase their intake of food.

For producers with larger herds, it can be beneficial for them to sort their cows. Thinner and younger cows can be in a group that’s fed more than bigger, older cows.

“That way you can manage the cows’ individual needs a little bit better,” she said.

While efforts to keep animals safe were in full force during the Arctic blast the last few days of January, farmers also had to ward off their own frostbite.

“Yep it’s cold, but we’re hanging in there,” said Hannah Bernhardt, who along with her husband, raises grass-fed beef, lamb and pastured pork in Finlayson, Minn. “With three wool layers and my face covered, I’ve been able to handle being out with the animals for over an hour.”