Rain, sleet, snow, ice and freezing temperatures are tough on humans and livestock alike. What can livestock managers do to keep animals healthy and comfortable in winter?
Provide livestock a clean and reliable year-round water source. Animals cannot meet water requirements by eating snow or licking ice. Sheep need 3 gallons of water a day and cattle need 14 gallons per head. Consuming ice and snow lowers body temperature and increases maintenance energy needs.
Water should be 37°F or above. Tank heaters ensure that water sources do not freeze. Follow manufacturers’ recommendations to prevent fires and electric shocks or electrocution of livestock. If heaters are not used, unfrozen water should be provided several times a day. Ensuring adequate water intake will encourage optimal health and performance of livestock and help prevent serious conditions, such as colic and impaction.
Livestock’s nutritional requirements increase during cold weather. Requirements increase even more if animals become wet and it's windy. Lowest critical environmental temperatures (LCT) for livestock vary according to species. Temperatures from 20° to 32°F are the lowest temperature dry livestock can tolerate without additional energy demands to support normal body temperature. The LCT for wet animals is 60°F. Energy requirements for an animal with a healthy and dry winter coat increase by 1% for every degree the wind chill temperature falls below the LCT. Energy requirements for an animal with a wet coat increase by 2% for every degree drop in the wind chill temperature.
Roughage, such as hay, or grain provide valuable energy. Roughage is preferable due to its feeding safety, lower cost and greater heat released during digestion. However, when roughage is in short supply use corn, barley, wheat, and oats, etc. Frequent small grain feedings are safer than one large daily feeding. Grain requirements vary; discuss with your Extension educator.
Some cold and wet weather require a 100% increase in energy requirements to help animals maintain normal body temperature and functions. But a large, sudden and short-term increase in feed is not healthy. Dietary changes should be gradual. Dietary energy increases are necessary during inclement weather, but livestock will fare better if they have sufficient body condition to call upon during times of need.
Blankets retain body heat, particularly for elderly horses or a pet goat. The blanket side closest to the animal should be dry.
Daily hand feeding gives managers a sense of their animal's health and appetite. But hand feeding is labor-intensive. Feeding big bales to a group of animals saves labor, but individual animal health can be overlooked. Animals fed directly on the ground waste 50% of their hay. So do animals fed more than they can consume at one feeding.
Managers must ensure adequate bunk or headspace so every animal gets its share of feed. Divide animals into groups based on nutritional requirements. Pregnant, immature animals, for instance, should be fed separately. Failing to meet pregnant heifers and doelings' nutritional needs results in stunted animals, poor milk production and weak or dead fetuses.
Keep trace mineralized salt available and protect it from the elements. Horses and cattle do well with salt blocks, and sheep and goals like salt crumbles.
Fat cover or body reserves are assessed through body condition scoring. Livestock managers who body condition score their animals use anatomical landmarks and a five- or nine-point scoring system to objectively measure animals’ fat cover. Thick winter hair coats and fleeces can hide poor body condition, so body condition scoring requires a hands-on assessment of animals. Refer to the recommended reference to learn how to body condition score.
Animals do not need or want to live in an enclosed barn in the winter, and barns are not practical for large herds. But protection from wind and rain will decrease energy requirements and feed costs and increase animal comfort. Three-sided sheds, hills, thickets of trees and solid or semisolid fences provide breaks from the prevailing wind. Provide sufficient space to prevent overcrowding and trampling. Provide shelter for animals with insufficient space or protected spots in the landscape. Shelter requirements vary; thick-fleeced sheep will graze and spend time outside during poor weather, but most goats prefer to stay dry than to eat.
Keep shelter bedding dry and clean. Bedding insulates animals from the cold ground. However, bedding soiled by animal wastes build up ammonia fumes that make animals susceptible to pneumonia-causing bacteria and viruses. Provide good ventilation so the air seems fresh, but not drafty. Provide enough space for all animals.
Mud makes foot and hoof diseases such as foot rot and thrush more likely and it causes animals to be perpetually chilled. The wetness of mud can make parasite survival more likely as well.
Contact your local conservation district for recommendations on how you can prevent mud problems. Develop a sacrifice area or use geotextiles, gravel, tile, gutters, sand or wood chips to manage wintertime water movement and minimize mud accumulation.
Your animals may have special health concerns in the winter, especially if they are pregnant. Talk with your veterinarian about the vaccinations, nutritional supplementation and deworming your animals may need. Winter is often a good time to address the overwintering phase of internal parasites to reduce environmental contamination in the spring. Also, many animals become infested with species-specific lice in the winter and your veterinarian can advise you on how to treat these pests.
Just because it is winter is no reason to overlook animals’ need for exercise to promote muscular and skeletal health. Encourage exercise by varying the location of feeding and watering sites if possible. Exercise will help prevent obesity and overgrown hooves. Hoof care can easily be neglected in the winter, but poor hoof care can lead to several serious health problems. Trim hooves regularly, provide good nutrition, remove manure and minimize mud for optimal hoof health.
Addressing the special nutritional, environmental and health needs of livestock in the winter will help ensure optimal animal welfare and performance. Preventing problems is more economical than is treating them so in this era of challenging farm profitability, the concept of prevention will never grow cold.