Fall and winter are traditionally the toughest seasons for animals that spend the majority of their time outside. For farmers, there are choices to be made as to just how many and which beef or dairy cattle that they want to carry through the winter. For the small or hobby farmer this choice may not be as commercially driven as a larger operation. Small farm cattle may be special breeds and sometimes, even old fashioned sentiment may be a factor. However, there are challenges to be met both practical and financial if your cattle are going to emerge healthy and happy into spring pastures.
At the very basic level we all have to be able to get out of the bad weather or we're going to be sick and cattle are no exception. Dairy cattle in particular will be susceptible to getting frozen teats and the resultant loss in milk production will go straight to your bottom line. On a practical note, protection from the elements will mean that your cattle will be happier and burn fewer calories, which means that you may not have to feed as much. Depending on your climate, adequate shelter can take a variety of forms including:
In addition to structures, you will need to provide bedding. Make sure that it is kept as dry and clean as possible. Soiled bedding is a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria, which could cause pneumonia. Also make sure that your structures are ventilated but not drafty and give your cattle adequate space.
The provision of adequate water is absolutely fundamental for cattle. Eating snow can meet some of your cattle's needs but cows require 14 gallons of water a day (much more for lactating dairy cattle). Aside from that, the energy needed to melt snow is six times that of drinking fresh water and will also lead to a lower body temperature; more calories expended on melting snow will likely mean that you will be feeding more.
If your cattle take on the right amount of water this will enhance their health and decrease the risk of colic or impaction. The optimum water temperature is 37° F and above. Depending on the severity of your winters you may have to install a heated livestock waterer or frequently provide unfrozen water.
When the weather turns colder, cattle need more nutrients to maintain their health. If your cattle are cold and/or wet, then normal fall and winter feed intakes will need to be increased. Researchers say that the lowest critical environmental temperature (LCT) for dry livestock is 37° F and that the energy (feed) requirements for wet livestock increases by two percent for every 1° F reduction in the temperature.
Feed your cattle hay and a supplement formulated to provide a balance of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Properly formulated supplements will provide more energy than forages. In the case of small farms you should have the time to feed smaller amounts and often, and you can also monitor an individual animal's intake. Consider using feeders for supplements and hay. Using square bales will also allow you to reduce hay wastage. Finally, do not forget the mineral needs of your cattle and put out properly designed minerals for the production cycle of the cattle.
Well before the freeze, fall and early winter rains will make mud. Mixed in with cattle manure, the resultant mixture can make your animals chilled, uncomfortable, or in the worst case, sick. Hoof rot, and particularly in dairy cattle, thrush, are both possibilities. Your cattle will want to congregate and it is in those areas where you will need to reduce the build up of mud. You can consider the use of materials such as gravel, sand, tile, and wood chips. Remember to remove soiled material and replace it with fresh material as necessary.
The cooler months are a good time to get a handle on internal and external parasites. Talk to your vet about deworming and vaccinations; you might also want to consider nutrient supplements for pregnant cows.
Exercise for your cattle is important to their muscular and skeletal health even in the winter time. You can get your cattle to move around more by varying the feeding locations which will also reduce the amount of hoof trimming to do in the colder months, although regular hoof trimming will still be necessary.
To stock up on supplies to help your cattle through the winter, stop by your local Southern States store.