Winterizing Your Cattle Herd

Oct 24, 2022

Courtesy of our friends with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture
As the calendar turns a new year, cattle producers need to consider how to help their herds weather the winter. Dr. Marc Caldwell, a field service veterinarian with the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center, responds to some common questions about best management practices.
Do cows’ nutritional needs differ in the colder months?
Dr. Caldwell: Cold weather increases the energy needs of cattle. It is therefore important to test your hay and supplements so you know the quality of feed you’re providing. Cattle may be able to get by with poor quality hay in mild weather, but once the cold arrives, they need energy-dense, good quality feed. When cold fronts are predicted, provide additional supplements (grain, protein mixes, and range cubes) a few days before and throughout the cold weather. Calves display malnutrition at the time of extreme weather — they lie down, become cold, and die of exposure. Cold stress also has effects on their immune systems. Scours outbreaks often occur 1 to 2 weeks after a bad winter storm. Adult cattle experience malnutrition more maliciously and may display weight loss, poor pregnancy rates, and/or trouble delivering and raising calves. February and March are often the worst. By this time, cattle have endured the long winter and don’t have large stores of energy to endure any more tough weather.
Is excess moisture a problem in the winter? If so, how should you deal with it?
Dr. Caldwell: The worst weather scenarios start with a cold rain followed by precipitous temperatures that drop below freezing. If cattle’s coats get wet, they can’t maintain a core of insulation, and body heat seeps out at a faster rate. When wet coats freeze, the situation gets dangerous. Snow alone is less of a problem because snow often does not penetrate through the thicker layer of the coat. Cold rain is more dangerous, and unfortunately, we get a lot of that in Tennessee. Any form of shelter is key — barns, sheds, dense trees, or rows of hay bales.
Should you worry about calves born during the winter?
Dr. Caldwell: It’s not uncommon for calves to be born in January and February. Most years, that doesn’t create a problem. Calves less than a month old are most susceptible to cold weather. Emergency shelters are important when storms are coming.
What other considerations should ranchers take into account?
Dr. Caldwell: You may have seen cattle eating snow during the winter. It’s tempting to think they get enough water through that and you don’t have to get out and bust up water troughs, but the snow does not provide enough water. If possible, try to keep water troughs open at all times so cattle have unlimited access to water. Nursing cows require a lot of water to make milk — every mouth-full of water a cow doesn’t get means less milk and slower growing calves. Lighter calves mean lighter pay checks.
When is it dangerous for cattle to be out?
Dr. Caldwell: Winter rain followed by severe drops in temperatures are the worst scenario. Unfortunately, most cattlemen in Tennessee don’t have shelters large enough for their entire herds. Such shelters may not even be necessary. Though storms can be tough, they’re mercifully short. If your cattle are well fed and have shelter from the wind, they should get through the worst a Tennessee winter can throw at them.
For more information about cattle management, visit the UT Extension publications website ( and enter the search term “cattle” or contact your local county UT Extension agent.
Your local Co-op is a great resource for all things cattle related. For more content like this, check out the latest issue of The Cooperator.

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