In order to maintain the health of your cattle, it is important to have good winter management practices in place. These good practices also contribute to reasonable feed costs and long-term productivity of the beef cow herd. There will be times during the winter when it will be necessary to adjust the ration to help cows through cold conditions.
Cold stress is the temperature below which a resting animal must increase its metabolic rate to stay warm. It is defined as lower critical temperature. The temperature of an environment where this might occur varies depending in large part on the amount of insulation the animal has. The thickness of the hair coat and whether the hair is dry, wet or matted are all contributing factors of the animal’s insulation.
Here are lower critical temperatures based on coat condition:
- Wet or summer coat – 59 degrees F
- Dry fall coat – 45 degrees F
- Dry winter coat – 32 degrees F
- Dry heavy winter coat – 18 degrees F
Another important factor to consider when determining how many degrees below a cow’s critical temperature point to estimate the severity of cold stress is wind chill. For example, a 10-mile-per-hour wind at 20 degrees has the same effect as a temperature of 9 degrees with no wind. Conditions where the cattle have wet coats or can’t get out of the wind result in cold stress. Fat thickness under the coat is another determinant.
Cattle will naturally consume more feed to meet the added energy requirements needed to stay warm when temperatures are below the lower critical temperature. This can range from a 2% to 25% increase in voluntary intake to meet their energy needs. Intake during extreme cold and blizzards can vary greatly.
Supplementing cattle with extra corn is a common method to provide additional energy. Some beef producers can provide extra energy needs by feeding higher-quality forages during colder weather. Knowing the quality analysis of available feed resources helps economically and efficiently match resources to needs for each situation.
Make sure all animals have access to supplemented feeds to prevent bossy cows from eating more than their share and timid cows not getting any. Provide at least 30 inches per head of bunk space. Another option is to divide cattle into similar groups of fewer heads based on weight, age and body condition to provide less competition or more even competition within the group.
Remember that cattle can adapt to short-term weather changes relatively well without a significant impact on performance. Cows in good winter condition with dry, clean hair coats and wind shelter can deal with a few cold, miserable days without suffering long-term effects. However, ignoring long-term cold stress greatly increases the risk of problems with calving and rebreeding performance down the road.
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