Ag Notes, Dec. 20

Published 8:31 am Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Protecting livestock from cold weather

Providing sufficient water, ample high-quality feed and weather protection are the three most important things you can do to protect livestock from cold stresses this winter.  Cold stress reduces livestock productivity including rate of gain, milk production and reproductive difficulty and can cause disease problems.

Pay special attention to very young and very old animals that might be less able to tolerate temperature extremes and have weak immune systems. Also monitor heifers and cows as calving time approaches. They have a high risk of frostbite because the swelling of the udder and teats causes poor circulation.

Dehydration and hypothermia are the two most likely livestock life-threatening conditions for livestock in cold weather. Animals usually tend to drink less water in severely cold conditions, increasing the risk of dehydration. Many animals, especially young ones, might not know how or be able to break through ice to reach water. In addition, livestock need water to aid digestion, which produces heat when fiber breaks down.

Be sure your livestock always have plenty of clean water in liquid form. Dirty water is a host for disease organisms. Disease can rapidly spread if animals drink from the same trough containing filthy water. If an animal gets sick, isolate it from the trough and thoroughly clean and disinfect the trough. Also, be sure to keep animals clean.

Cows given free access to water will produce more milk and more butterfat than those allowed to drink only twice a day.

Water ranging from 40 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit is the most ideal temperature to ensure adequate livestock intake under cold conditions.

The amount of water needed daily varies based on the temperature and animals’ size, lactation and feed intake.  Generally, horses will need eight to 12 gallons of water per day; cows, seven to 12 gallons, and sheep and goats, one to four gallons. 

Necropsies (autopsies) have shown that dehydration, not cold, often causes livestock deaths during the winter and early spring.

Before severely cold weather arrives, haul extra feed to the feeding area. It’s important to provide extra hay, forage or feed because livestock might need up to twice as many calories to maintain normal body heat under extremely cold conditions.

Livestock produce body heat through fiber fermentation, which produces heat while releasing energy. Good quality grass hay or alfalfa are the best source of total digestible nutrients for cold weather. Feeding some concentrates also provides energy to maintain body temperature.

Finally, it’s important to provide some sort of protection for livestock because wet conditions and wind chill add to animal cold stress.  Cattle producers in one state reported that calving success increased by an average two percent when cows were protected by a windbreak.

Windbreaks provide protection for livestock, especially young animals. Reducing the winter wind speed lowers animal stress, improves animal health, reduces the amount of feed needed to maintain body temperature, increases feeding efficiency and increases profitability. A windbreak should be designed to meet needs of the specific livestock operation.

Windbreaks also have the advantages of providing wildlife habitat, protecting the working environment of the livestock area and screening noise and odors associated with livestock operations.

Using a three-sided shed opening away from prevailing winds is another way to protect livestock from the cold and wind. Be sure to allow enough room for livestock to enter the facility and to be protected from the wind. Also provide clean, dry bedding to provide insulation from the cold ground.

If you keep animals in a barn, be sure to reduce drafts inside. A low temperature isn’t so cold when the wind speed is lower.

For more information, contact the Boyle County Cooperative Extension Service.

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Jerry Little, County Extension Agent for Agriculture/Natural Resources