Eye On Extension: Cold weather can change animal care strategies

VALLEY — Cold weather finally moved into the San Luis Valley. We had a long, warm, dry fall. The cold weather means we need to look at the care and feeding we give our animals. We may decide to make some adjustments to our feeding program or the location where we are keeping our animals. 

The first question we should ask is what changes when cold weather sets in? The primary change is that an animals’ energy needs increase. Animals have a comfort zone where the temperature where they reside is just right. This is called the “Comfort Zone.” Outside this comfort zone like you and me they are less comfortable, either too hot or too cold. This time of year we are concerned with the “Lower Critical Temperature” (LCT) where, as the temperature drops below this temperature animals’ metabolism needs help to cope with the cold stress.

Animals can change the LCT by developing a heavier winter hair coat. Other improvements animals can mas is an improved body condition from fleshy rather than thin, is their coat wet or dry. Each of these can have an impact on an animal’s ability to withstand cold temperatures. 

For every degree of temperature drop below the LCT energy needs of the animal will increase one percent. As an example, cows that have a heavy winter hair coat that is dry and they are in good condition have a LCT of 19°F.  A summer hair coat may have a LCT of 32°F.  We have an added bonus in the San Luis Valley, because of our clear sky and solar radiation animals can withstand colder temperatures here and still feel comfortable during the day.

There is also an upper critical temperature or UCT which can affect animals during warm weather. This is where shade or a cool breeze makes them more comfortable.

Remember to factor in the wind chill index when evaluating cold stress. Wind can have a big impact on stress levels. Provide shelter for the animals if possible. A windbreak that stops or slows down the wind will help the animals. A windbreak can be temporary or permanent. Bedding on the ground can help especially when calves are young. 

Moving animals to areas where they have ravines, draws, trees or other topographic features to move into will be a help. Evergreen trees can be an effective windbreak. Open front sheds or snow fences can also provide some protection for animals.  Watch for snow drifts and help animals caught in them.

Check water supplies regularly to make sure animals have a consistent water source. Snow is cold so using it as a water source will cool down the inside of an animal, the area we want to keep warm.

Feed can be increased to provide additional energy. High quality hays are the preferred choice. High quality hays can provide additional TDN or energy.

Grains are high energy but they digest quickly and are not as good a choice. If animals are on a forage based diet increasing grain can cause a decrease in what they eat. Keep grain below 3 pounds per day for cows if they aren’t used to it. 

The digestion of roughages such as grass hay or alfalfa takes more time than a grain.  The digestion process generates internal body heat. The internal body heat generated will help our animals through the colder nights and days. Shivering is a form of exercise. Any exercise will increase the need for additional feed.

Don’t change rations daily. Animals need a chance to let the microbes in their digestive system adjust to new feeds. This takes a few days. If severe weather is predicted start the change 2-3 days ahead of time. 

Animals raised in an area often adapt easier than those brought in from a different climate. Give new animals a chance to adjust before extreme weather sets in. 

Younger or older animals may need extra care as they are more vulnerable to cold.  Livestock will often move away from a storm. Getting them to move into a heavy storm with wind can be a ranchers’ greatest challenge in a storm. If you need to move animals try to do so before a storm rather than during the storm.

Equipment that is in good condition including tractors or pickups will make working in extreme cold easier. Tools that are readily available can help reduce the amount of time outdoors for people. People need help in severe weather as well. Keep in mind the needs of family and help. Keep warm, or at least as warm as possible and be safe.

For more information, you can call the Colorado State University Extension, San Luis Valley Area Office at 719-852-7381.

Extension programs are available to all without discrimination, Colorado State University Extension, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado counties cooperating.