Winter Effects on Cattle Performance

By : Jiehua Xiong and Jana Gramkow, Ph.D., Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Inc.

With another winter right around the corner, it is a good idea to revisit how cold temperatures and moisture can impact cattle performance so that you can be prepared to minimize the downside  effects of winter weather conditions. Two of the biggest concerns we have for cattle in the feedlot are extreme cold and muddy pens.

The impact cold temperatures have on cattle is dependent on their lower critical temperature, which is the temperature at the lower end of their thermoneutral zone. At lower temperatures cattle must compensate by increasing heat production, and thus they have higher maintenance energy requirements. The lower critical temperature for cattle with dry winter coats is generally considered to be about 30 degrees Fahrenheit (including wind chill). Below this temperature, energy requirements of cattle increase approximately 1% for each degree the wind chill is below 30 degrees. Therefore, if the actual wind chill is 0 degrees, maintenance energy requirements have increased by 30%. Implementing a few cold weather management strategies can help reduce the impact of freezing temperatures.

Windbreaks are often an overlooked part of cold weather management. Wind chill is ultimately the temperature that affects cattle, so anything you can do to reduce the effects of wind is helpful. Cattle in a feedlot benefit from pounds, silos, etc., but if you have pens that are unprotected, think about how you can provide protection to those cattle. Something as simple as stockpiling hay or manure to provide a windbreak for outlying pens can pay big dividends.

We also suggest bedding cattle in sub-zero conditions when the ground is muddy or snow covered. Laying on cold, wet ground quickly robs cattle of body heat and makes it more difficult for them to maintain core body temperature. According to Dr. Terry Mader, Emeriti Beef Specialist from the University of Nebraska, a bedded space of 20-40 square feet per animal can help minimize the adverse effects of cold and wet conditions. Frequent removal of excess manure and bedding will reduce moisture retention and help pens dry out more  quickly. It is very important to keep feedlot pens in top condition throughout the winter to prevent cattle’s hair coat from matting down.

Muddy pen conditions increase cattle maintenance requirements and decrease average daily gain, thus increasing cost of gain. Cattle expend more energy walking through mud and will make fewer trips to the feed bunk during muddy conditions which can cause variations in intake patterns. Couple muddy conditions with wet hair and cold temperatures, and maintenance requirements will be even greater, thereby making the energy left for gain even less. According to Dr. Mader, maintenance requirements could be over 50% greater for wet, muddy cattle than for dry, clean cattle during winter. Extension educators from the University of Nebraska found that cattle standing in 4 to 8 inches of mud could have reduced gains by as much as 15%; a feedlot with mud that is belly deep could depress gain by 25%, resulting in   56% increase in cost of gain (Table 1).

Table 1. Potential Loss Caused by Mud at 21° to 39°F
Mud Depth Loss of Gain
Dewclaw 7%
Shin 14%
Below Hock 21%
Hock 38%
Belly 35%
University of Nebraska, Department of Animal Science

The extent to which mud affects cattle performance varies between different operations and scenarios. However, it is important for you to know that mud is one of the costliest weather hazards to cattle. Several preventative design and management options exist for minimizing the occurrence and extent of muddy pen conditions; however, very few ‘easy fi xes’ exist for muddy conditions once they happen. Therefore, getting ahead of the winter mud challenge with good pen management is important.

If pens were muddy prior to the cold weather and the surface area is hard to walk on, then it is a good idea to smooth the surface of the pens with a blade, scraper, or drag. This will increase the number of times cattle will visit the waters and bunks, resulting in better efficiency and gains and may even reduce digestive upsets. Make sure that pen surfaces are cleaned periodically, with any manure or undigested organic matter removed from the pen. Scrape lots to maintain an ideal slope of 3-5%, fill holes using soil that will compact, reshape the mounds and valleys, and keep the back of the pen clean and open to encourage good drainage. Good drainage is critical to minimize mud, basically the goal is to remove moisture out of pens as quickly as possible. When it comes to snow, the rule of thumb is that ten inches of snow equates to one inch of water when it melts. Remove accumulated snow out of the pen before it melts, and use snow fences or seasonal barriers to prevent blowing snow from entering pens. Attention should also be paid to the piled snow at the bottom of the pens or in the drainage ditches, it may create a dam that limits drainage. As mentioned earlier, there is not much we can do once muddy conditions occur. One option to try during muddy conditions is to move cattle to temporary lots or corn stalk fi elds if they are available. This will allow the muddy pen to be maintained and dry.

Lastly, if it snows, feed bunks should be blown or scooped out so that the feed does not freeze in the bunks when the snow melts. It will also improve intakes if the cattle are not trying to eat feed that is placed in snow or frozen down. With erratic weather patterns, intakes are bound to be variable, and it is very important to feed the cattle within 15 minutes of the same
time each day. This will minimize the chances of the cattle bloating and reduce the swings in intake.

Keeping cattle dry and clean is key to minimizing the effects of adverse weather conditions this
winter. Good pen maintenance and cold weather preparation are crucial to ensure this. If you have any questions on ways to maintain pens this winter, please contact one of our consultants.

For more information on this or any nutrition-related topic, contact Great Plains Livestock Consultants at www.

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