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Recognizing Cold Stress in Cattle

When winter weather arrives, cattle body composition can begin to drop along with the temperatures. Like all mammals, cows are warm-blooded and maintain their core temperature by keeping their metabolic rate high and conserving body heat with their hair or fur. Being able to recognize the warning signs of cold stress and take action is a key part to managing your cattle operation over winter.

Digest winter cattle shelter.pngKnow the Warning Signs of Hypothermia

Mild hypothermia can begin to occur at 0-1 °C or 32° Fahrenheit and can begin to occur at warmer temperatures when there is significant wind chill or precipitation from rain or snow. At these temperatures, cattle may begin to exhibit behavioral changes to combat the cold stress and maintain a constant core body temperature.

Huddling – Cattle may seek out low-lying areas around the pasture and huddle together for warmth. Allowing the herd to congregate can also help protect them from the wind or other nasty weather.

Decreased Water Consumption – Cattle naturally drink less water and eat more feed during the winter to help maintain their internal body temperature. However, it is still important to monitor water intake and keep water sources free from ice and debris. Cattle who are experiencing cold stress may be less motivated to travel to a water source, which can lead to dehydration and make it more difficult to process the feed they are consuming.

Reduced Body Condition – Body condition score is used to estimate body fat percentage in cattle and is particularly important during the winter months when energy requirements increase. Body condition can be done using visual indicators which can be difficult in the winter if your cattle grow a longer hair coat. Palpation cattle for fattiness along bone structures including backbone, ribs, and hips can also help you determine if your herd is expending too much energy in an effort to battle the cold.

Take Action

If your cattle are experiencing signs of cold stress, it’s important to take action to mitigate the impact of the winter temperatures. Providing dry, clean bedding and shelters including wind breaks or snow breaks to help protect them from the elements is a great start, but you may also need to adjust their feeding program to help them stay comfortable.

For more information of cattle nutrition during winter, visit this article in our How-To Library.

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