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Managing Cold Stress in Cattle

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By: Mike Boersma, Extension Educator & 4-H Program Director, Murray & Pipestone Counties

The recent snow and cold temperatures bring with them a host of challenges and special considerations for those with livestock. For cattle producers whose livestock are predominantly outdoors, one of those extra considerations is that animals' energy needs will increase as the temperature decreases. Wind, snow, and cold temperatures have additive effects on the increase in energy requirements for the animals to simply maintain their normal body functions.

As a general guideline, cattle will experience a 1% increase in their energy requirement for every 1 degree of wind chill below 32 degrees F. In other words, if the wind chill is 10 degrees, a cow's energy requirement would increase by 22% (32 minus 10). This increase nearly doubles if the animal is wet.

To take the concept one step further, the Lower Critical Temperature (LCT) of an animal is the lowest temperature that animal can experience before their body needs to burn more energy to stay warm. For a cow with a winter coat, the LCT is approximately 32 degrees. However, that same cow with a wet hair coat will have a LCT of 60 degrees.

Therefore, it is important for producers to take the necessary steps to protect their livestock from adverse weather conditions. While it usually isn't possible to keep them out of the cold, there are many ways livestock owners can protect animals from wind and falling snow. This can be done by providing shelter or windbreaks for the animals. When providing shelter to cattle, make sure that there is still adequate air exchange so that humidity and moisture do not accumulate as these can actually compound the problem by making the animals wet and increasing their Lower Critical Temperature.

At the same time, producers can take steps to increase the animals' energy intake during adverse weather conditions. While the surest way to increase energy is to add grain to the diet, this could cause digestive upsets in animals on a high roughage diet. A more subtle and practical approach for these animals is to save the best quality hay for bad weather and perhaps feed this hay for a couple days after the storm has passed to make up for any weight lost. Remember that any dietary changes must be gradual to avoid digestive upsets.

With the bitterly cold wind chills of the past few weeks, simply supplying enough dietary energy for the animals to maintain normal body function, without needing to burn stored fat, can be a real challenge. Taking steps to reduce the effects of the cold while increasing energy intake should help cattle overcome these environmental stresses of winter.

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Mike Boersma is a County Extension Educator & 4-H Program Director with the University of Minnesota Extension in Murray and Pipestone Counties

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