Is it cold enough for you? – Caring for Cattle in Cold Weather

Cold and snow come with winter. It’s part of life in the Midwest, but deep snow and extreme cold are things that require extra preparations for those of us raising livestock. Thankfully this latest winter storm only brought about 3 inches of snow, and while some drifts are quite a bit deeper than that, we haven’t had any trouble getting vehicles (including the milk truck) in or out of the dairy. The challenge this time around is the extremely cold air that has moved into our area.

The sun even seems to be amplified by the extremely cold air.

Our low temperature overnight (and into the morning) was -10, and we’ve haven’t gotten above 0 yet today. This is pretty cold for our area, but the bigger concern is the -30-ish wind chill that has accompanied it. The only question I hear more often than “is it cold enough for you?” is “Are you keeping the cows warm?”.

Cattle are pretty tolerant of cold temperatures, but I’ll be honest: cold and wind are a bad combination, especially for high risk animals and sensitive extremities like teats. Just as it makes the temperature much less bearable for us, the wind is harder on our animals than the cold, especially those that are older or younger or already sick or stressed. We spent the weekend trying to make sure that all of our animals would be as comfortable as possible during the worst of this cold snap.

Our milk herd has a free stall barn that is bedded with sand in the center aisle and straw in the sides. When the tractor wouldn’t start on Sunday, David bedded the stalls by hand. When we expect high winds, we close the sliding doors on the north side of this building to block the wind making this shelter much more comfortable. Usually, the open doors help with ventilation, but during times like this we sacrifice some ventilation in hopes of preventing more serious issues like frostbite.

A group of 4 month old heifers snuggled into their fresh bedding.

The heifer groups each have buildings that are also bedded with straw. We spent almost all day Saturday spreading square bales of straw to keep calves warm. The shelters have low roofs (at 5′-7″, I cannot stand up) which prevent drafts and make them warmer, but they also prevent access for equipment like the bale shredder, so bedding is again done by hand.

One of our young calves staying warm in the back of it's hut.  You can see its bedding is almost as deep as it's knees.
One of our young calves staying warm in the back of it’s hut. You can see its bedding is almost as deep as it’s knees.

Calves under two months old occupy individual huts, and they’ve each got extra bedding in preparation for the extra cold. We also have six calves under four weeks old that were penned in our Morton building while we weaned older calves and cleaned huts. We now have huts available, but the calves will stay indoors until the wind chill risk has passed. The huts are insulated just as well as the building, and are probably less drafty; however, the calves (who are unfamiliar with a hut) might wander outside, and we definitely don’t want our youngest calves outside during this weather. Hopefully later this week we’ll get them each a hut, but for now they’re nice and comfy inside the shed (check out the HeimDairy Facebook page to see a video of twins playing in the barn).

Our dry cows and bred heifers live on pasture and are our only animals without access to a building. Most of the time this is not a major concern; they do have access to low elevations with timber to block the wind, but extremes like this worry us, especially with snow. A cow’s teats can get wet in the snow and then cold in the wind when she stands to eat or drink. The cows’ instincts will tell them to go into low spots and timber to get out of the wind, so we spread straw in the protected areas where we could see that the cows had been laying. This morning, the cows and heifers were all laying in the bedded areas, so thankfully they got the idea.

We fed a mixture of corn and sorghum silages to our dry cows to give them an energy boost as the colder air and wind moved in.

The final step to help our animals deal with inclement weather is in their feeding. To keep warm, the cows and calves will burn some additional energy, so we’re feeding a little bit extra just over the next couple of days to offset that energy loss. We took a wagon full of silage to the dry cows ahead of the storm to supplement the hay they always have available (when there’s no grass), and the young calves are getting a little stronger mix of milk replacer (about 5% extra powder in the same amount of water). The cows and older calves will get a little extra feed as well.

Our wind chill warning ended at noon, but the advisory continues, and colder than average temperatures will persist until tomorrow. So far, everything is doing well, but we’re eagerly awaiting the above-freezing reprieve we’ll get tomorrow. I guess the saying is true – if you don’t like the weather, just wait a an hour (or a day?). And yes, It’s definitely cold enough for me.

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