Cold weather animal care practices

Do you wonder what local farmers do to ensure the wellbeing of their livestock when it is cold outside?

Baby it’s cold outside – and it has been for some time. If the future predictions are accurate, this cold is going to be hanging around for several more weeks. As we preheat our cars before getting in them and hibernate with extra blankets on these long cold winter evenings, we all should be aware of the extra measures Michigan farmers have been taking to ensure the wellbeing of their livestock.

Most livestock are very well adapted to living outside in cold weather. Most animals actually prefer to be outside. We have learned from past, but well-intentioned mistakes, that when we try to protect cattle from the cold by closing them in, they get sick because of high moisture in the air and easy transmission of bacteria and viruses. Access to fresh air helps to prevent them from getting sick. Farmers are very careful to provide proper ventilation and barns are kept clean and dry with adequate bedding materials, such as straw or pine shavings.

If livestock are kept outdoors, farmers provide shelter in different ways – open sided sheds or windbreaks such as a stand of trees, a solid wall, a fence line or a low lying area between two hills will be enough to block the wind for the herd. All livestock but goats are most susceptible to a cold freezing rain. Farmers provide additional (temporary) shelters or take extra measures for these types of weather occurrences.

Although nature provides thicker coats (wool or hair) to livestock in the winter, they still require more energy (calories) to keep warm. This means that farmers provide them with more feed during particularly cold months. Feed formulations for livestock are adjusted to increase the energy content to allow for increased caloric intake. For instance, some people are concerned about dairy calves in hutches during the winter. Dairy producers increase the energy through extra feedings or more per feeding.

Snow is not a good water source. Snow is mostly air, so livestock would need to eat a lot of it to meet their daily requirements. If there is not access to a heated water source, farmers will take water to their livestock multiple times a day to ensure their well-being. Think about this – a lactating dairy cow requires over 15 gallons of water a day – that’s way too much to try to drink in one stop at the watering hole.

If you’re not familiar with the area, or if you are new to caring for livestock, be sure to speak with someone. Good resources are your veterinarian, an experienced livestock owner, contacting your local Michigan State University Extension office or seeking one of our experts online.

Caring for livestock in winter is an important task for producers and is often higher stress on farm family members and employees. But producers understand that healthy livestock are critical for their success and take necessary steps to assure that livestock do well even during these frigid months. 

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