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When It’s Cold, Cows Need More Feed

By   /  December 16, 2019  /  5 Comments

We think you already know this. But do you have the breakdown of how much more they need depending on the temperature, wind chill, and how wet or dry their coats are?

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This comes to us from January of 2018 just after an especially cold winter storm. Thanks to  Steve Tonn, University of Nebraska Extension Educator, for this article!

The cold blast we had in December makes us think there is more cold weather ahead. When feeding cows we need to consider the effect of weather conditions. Dr. Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension Animal Scientist, offers these tips for feeding cows in cold weather. The major effect of cold on nutrient requirement of cows is increased need for energy. To determine magnitude of cold, lower critical temperature for beef cows must first be estimated. For cows with a dry winter hair coat the lower critical temperature is considered to be 32 degrees F. In general, researchers have used the rule of thumb that cows’ energy requirements increase 1% for each degree the wind chill is below the 32 degree lower critical temperature. Therefore the calculation example for a cow with a winter dry hair coat would be:

Step 1: Cow’s lower critical temperature is 32 degrees F.
Step 2: Expected wind-chill from weather reports (let’s use 4 degrees wind chill in this example)
Step 3: Calculate the magnitude of the cold: 32 degrees – 4 degrees = 28 degrees
Step 4: Energy adjustment is 1% for each degree magnitude of cold or 28%.
Step 5: Feed cows 128% of daily energy amount. (if a cow was to receive 16 pounds of high quality grass/legume hay; then feed 20.5 pounds of hay during the cold weather event).

Research has indicated that energy requirement for maintenance of beef cows with a wet hair coat is much greater. Cows that are exposed to falling precipitation and have the wet hair coats are considered to have reached the lower critical temperature at 59 degrees F. In addition, the requirements change twice as much for each degree change in wind-chill factor. In other words, the energy requirement actually increases 2% for each degree below 59 degrees F. To calculate the magnitude of the cold when the cow is wet would be the difference between 59 degrees minus 4 degrees = 55 degrees. True energy requirements to maintain a wet cow in this weather would be 2% X 55 degrees or 110 % increase in energy (which would mean that over twice the normal energy intake is needed.) This amount of energy change is virtually impossible to accomplish with feedstuffs available on ranches.

In addition this amount of energy change in the diet of cows accustomed to a high roughage diet must be made very gradually to avoid severe digestive disorders. Therefore, the more common-sense approach is a smaller increase in energy requirements during wet cold weather and extending the increase into more pleasant weather to help regain energy lost during the storm.Cows that were consuming 16 pounds of grass hay per day and 5 pounds of 20% range cubes could be increased to 20 pounds of grass hay offered per day plus 6 to 7 pounds of range cubes during the severe weather event. This is not a doubling of the energy intake but by extending this amount for a day or two after the storm may help overcome some of the energy loss during the storm and done in a manner that does not cause digestive disorders.

The fact that it is not feasible to feed a wet, very cold cow enough to maintain her current body condition, underscores the need for cows to be in “good” body condition at the start of winter.

Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

5 Comments

  1. C Nickelson says:

    Kathy, what would the lower critical temps be for sheep? Wool/hair sheep? Dry/wet coat?

  2. Gene Schriefer says:

    Cows with a heavy winter coat have thermal neutral around 17 degrees.

    • Richard says:

      Agreed, Gene, that my dry cattle are comfortable to the teens with no wind, and are content with their normal stockpile and quality hay.

      But the current storm system has them (and me) thoroughly wet. Winds picking up and temps dropping all day. Rain passing through again and more bands to come.

      I’m sitting by the wood stove drying out, warming up, and could stand to drop a few lbs. But any cattle weight lost through this storm, by the more timid ones in my herd, it likely won’t be gained back for months.

      So the article Kathy posted has pushed me to get back out (between rains), move the polywire again, and feed more hay at the pasture edge. Thankfully the mud will be frozen hard in the morning!

  3. Richard says:

    Another strategy to limit heat loss: where possible, allow cattle to seek areas out of the wind, moving a bit if wind shifts during storms. Trees, hollows, ravines, brush, leeward sides of hills, etc. Given the chance, they’ll seek out those spots with the least windchill, the drier places to bed down, and conserve limited body fat.
    If I pay attention, they’ll teach me where they want to be in the worst storms of the season. If I plan ahead, can make those available again, and have hay nearby.

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