Winter weather cattle, horse management

Jan 24, 2014
by WLJ

Winter weather conditions have certainly hit with a vengeance this year, not only in South Dakota but in a wide swath of the cattle producing areas of the United States. While we can’t change the weather, there are some things that can be done from a management standpoint to improve cattle comfort and reduce the impacts on cattle performance and efficiency during the winter.

South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist Warren Rusche outlines steps cattle producers can take below.

Wind Protection: One of the most effective methods to reduce the impact of cold stress on cattle is to provide protection from the wind. Reducing the wind speed from 20 miles per hour to 5 miles per hour or less will reduce maintenance energy requirements by as much as 30 percent.

“Temporary windbreaks are very well suited for feedlots as they could be removed during the summer months when maximum air movement is desirable,” he said.

Bedding: Several research trials have shown advantages to providing bedding during extreme winter weather conditions. Researchers from the Carrington Research Extension Center in North Dakota found that cattle that were provided bedding gained faster (0.86 pounds increased average daily gain) and more efficiently than their non-bedded counterparts. These cattle also had increased carcass weights and a greater percentage grading Choice.

“These researchers also found that the type of crop residue used can affect performance,” Rusche said.

He explained that there was a tendency for calves bedded with corn stalks to consume less dry matter from the ration compared to cattle bedded with wheat straw, resulting in slower gains in those calves.

“If cattle producers have both straw and corn stover available, there may be an economic benefit to dedicating straw supplies to bedding and using the corn stover as a roughage source,” he said.

Water and Feed Delivery: Extreme cold temperatures can test the limits of both people and machines like very few other weather conditions.

“Consequently, delivering feed and keeping water available can be a challenge.

“Successfully accomplishing both tasks is critically important to maintaining acceptable animal performance. Being prepared as much as possible ahead of forecasted winter storms will help keep storm-related disruptions to a minimum,” he said.

Managing feed intake is another challenge in the winter. Cold temperatures generally tend to increase feed intake. However, intakes can be reduced during severe cold stress and wind chill because cattle become reluctant to leave shelter to come up to the bunk or feeder. Any adjustments made to feed deliveries should be made conservatively to avoid digestive upset. Rations that are based on large amounts of low quality roughage may need to be adjusted or supplemented with higher quality feedstuffs to ensure that energy intake is adequate. A ration that may work under “normal” conditions might not be sufficient during severe cold stress.

Pen Maintenance: As much as possible, snow that accumulates in the pen or lot should be removed. This winter’s snow becomes next spring’s mud, so reducing the amount that builds up in the pen will correspond to faster drying when the snow melts. Removing snow and ice from around waterers and bunk lines will provide better footing for the cattle and easier access to feed and water.


Cattle aren’t the only ranch livestock needing special attention in the winter. During the extremely bitter temperatures throughout most of the Upper Midwest, it is critically important that horse owners ensure their horses receive enough water of the proper temperature.

“Horses should be eating more forage as weather gets cold. However, a horse owner must ensure that their horses are also getting enough water,” said Mindy Hubert, SDSU Extension Small Acreage Field Specialist.

Unless they receive enough water, Hubert explained the horse’s bulky gut fills and lack of water can lead to impaction colic.

“Horses naturally tend to drink less when water is cold, frozen, or difficult to get to. Therefore, it is our job to ensure that palatable water is available to them,” she said.

Many horse owners wonder if it’s alright for their horses to eat snow to help meet their water requirements, Hubert said. She explains that although eating snow alone won’t directly harm horses, calories are being used to melt the snow that should be used for body warmth.

“Furthermore, it takes six times as much snow to provide an equal amount of water. That means to obtain just one gallon of water, your horse needs to consume the equivalent of six gallons of snow,” she said.

For the required 8-12 gallons of water needed per day, that same horse would need to eat 48-72 gallons of snow per day.

“Obviously it is not feasible for a horse to consume sufficient amounts of water through snow alone,” she said.

If a horse owner is unable to provide a heated water source for their horses during cold temperatures, then Hubert said they must frequently provide fresh, frostfree water as often as possible throughout the day, keeping in mind:

Water should be maintained between 45-65 degrees F, and any ice crystals should be removed; Water should be checked at least twice daily and provided at all times; Horses will drink eight to 12 gallons a day;

Under normal conditions, a horse will consume approximately 1 gallon of water per 100 pounds of body weight (1,000 pound horse will consume 10-12 gallons; working and/or lactating horses require more); Pregnant mares require about 10 percent more water than non-pregnant mares; As the water temperature decreases, the same 1,000 pound horse may consume as little as 1-3 gallons of water daily when water temperature is 32 degrees F. Because this decrease in water intake may contribute to an impaction colic, it is necessary to take the steps to keep water between 45-65 degrees F. — WLJ