Winter Cattle Care: Get Your Herd Ready for Cold Weather

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Many factors go into winter cattle care. Wind, snow, ice, freezing temperatures and mud are just a few elements that can negatively impact cattle performance. Shelter, bedding and nutrition are all key fundamentals in combatting the harsh winter months, but they’re also a lot to balance when the wind is howling and the snow is blowing.

Learn how to prepare your herd before the temperature drops and how to best care for them when they are battling the cold.

What is optimal winter body condition?

Going into winter, cows should be in good body condition. A cattle body condition score (BCS) of 6 is an excellent place to start. As temperature drops, a cow must pull from her body stores to generate heat, especially if she’s spending the winter on low-quality forages, like crop residue, or somewhere without windbreaks or shelter.

If she’s in good condition, not only is she well insulated, but she’s also not losing heat. When a cow is not losing heat, snow accumulates on her back, giving her even more insulation.

If she’s not collecting snow on her back, that’s a sign she’s not in the condition she needs to be – she’s losing body heat, which is melting the snow. As that snow melts, it makes her coat wet, increasing her energy needs for maintenance.

Caring for under-conditioned cows

A few cows are always behind on their body condition score compared with the rest of the herd. When you have cows losing condition who can’t sustain themselves through the winter, sometimes it’s best to sort off the lower-condition cows and give them an extra boost of nutrition before the weather sets in.

It may only work to sort the low-condition cows if you have separate pastures or pens where you can provide additional nutrition.

If nothing else, identify why they’re in a lower body condition score. If you’ve worked through the herd and fed them appropriately to get them back into condition before winter, and they still didn’t gain weight, then there’s probably an underlying reason.

Teeth can be a significant factor in causing weight loss. Mouthing cows can answer many questions, especially with older cows. Cows missing front teeth have trouble grazing standing forage, while cows missing back teeth have difficulty chewing and breaking down forage. Deworming cows can also be a simple fix. If they didn’t get dewormed properly or if that’s not part of your program, worms can be a significant factor in preventing a cow from absorbing nutrients.

Understanding why cows are under-conditioned can lead to a problem solved.

Identify cold stress in cattle

The telltale sign of cold cows is butts to the wind, head down and huddled in a group. Cows with a heavy winter coat may experience cold stress when temperatures approach 20°F.

Initially, in a cold-stress situation, feed intake will go up. From a grazing standpoint, they’ll start to graze more over a day or so, but then intake and grazing will start going down. Those are things that can be difficult to monitor.

The main thing to consider when cattle are experiencing cold stress is to keep them dry and out of the wind. Cows can typically adapt to cold temperatures over time as long as temperatures decrease steadily, allowing them to grow their heavy winter coat.

If you can’t get cattle inside, a windbreak, shelter or something similar can make a big difference. Bedding can also make a herd much more comfortable in bad winter weather. Not only does it help insulate where they lay, but if mud becomes a factor, it helps keep them dry. When cows get muddy, they also get wet, and a damp coat takes energy out of a cow as she tries to stay warm.

Feeding during a cold snap

Heat from digestion is a great way to help a cow warm up. That’s why we see a lot of additional forages being fed during cold winter months. Even if a cow is on pasture or corn stalks, she may need additional forage during a colder-than-normal period.

Get your herd ready for winter and have all the tools to keep them at the highest level of performance all winter long.

Nutrition for winter feeding situations

High-quality forage

When forage quality is high, the main factor to monitor is protein. Ideally, protein should be around 10% or higher.

If the protein content in your forages meets this benchmark and ample forage is available, there isn’t much need for supplementation besides offering mineral. Providing Purina® Wind and Rain® mineral ensures that the cows are getting what they need and you’re feeding the rumen microbes.

Low-quality forage

When forage quality is below 10% protein, cows may benefit from supplemental protein to help feed the rumen microbes and aid in digestion.

As long as there’s plenty of forage available, Purina® RangeLand® protein tub is recommended to boost protein levels. Purina® Accuration® Hi-Fat block is another option to provide protein and additional energy for cows needing an extra boost, especially for those with a lower body condition score.

Limited forage

With limited forage, creating a balanced diet is the best thing you can do for your cows. By-products, gluten feed, distillers grains and corn silage are all great sources of nutrition and energy to keep cows going. Especially when drought conditions impact forages, energy-dense diets can change the game.

A good mineral program is always critical, especially if you feed cows in a bunk scenario. In that situation, a Purina® RangeLand® mineral product would fit very well.

Extreme cold

Maintaining cattle body condition in extreme cold, even with high-quality forages, is hard. Feeding additional forage and energy-dense ingredients is key to keeping cattle going while limiting performance impacts. Using a mix of Purina® Accuration® Range Supplement 33 with corn and forage can be an option to get the extra nutrients the herd requires when it’s extremely cold.

Does your cattle nutrition program stack up? Find out with a Proof Pays trial.

Related Articles:

Wintering Cattle? Tips to Keep Them Warm
Managing and Feeding Cattle in Winter
How to Reduce Winter Hay Waste for Cattle
How to Prepare Cattle Water Sources for Winter