How to help livestock handle cold weather
By JERRY LITTLE
The three most important things you can do to protect livestock in cold weather are providing sufficient water, giving ample high-quality feed and offering weather protection. 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 life-threatening conditions for livestock in cold weather. Necropsies (autopsies) have shown that dehydration causes more livestock deaths than cold during the winter and early spring. Animals tend to drink less water in severely cold conditions, increasing their risk of dehydration. Many animals, especially young ones, might not know how or be able to break through ice to reach fresh water. 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 a trough containing dirty water. If an animal gets sick, isolate it from the trough and thoroughly clean and disinfect the trough.
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.
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 feed concentrates also provides energy to maintain body temperature.
Finally, it’s important that you provide some sort of protection for livestock because wet conditions and wind chill add to animal cold stress.
Windbreaks provide protection, especially for young animals. Reducing the winter wind exposure lowers animal stress, improves animal health, reduces the amount of feed needed to maintain body temperature and increases feeding efficiency, and that can lead to increased profitability. You can design windbreaks to meet the needs of your 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 animals to enter the facility and have protection 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.
Jerry Little is the Boyle County extension agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources.
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