Farm Store | articles | Early Fall, Late Fall, Winter

Temperature Risks to Beef Cattle Health

With winter weather fast approaching, it's time for beef farmers to develop and finalize their winter herd management plans. Cold temperatures bring added stress on cattle as they adjust to temperature fluctuations, wind, snow, rain and mud. Dealing with these stressors will cause cattle to use more energy, thus affecting their daily energy requirements and performance; Without a proper management plan, herd health can suffer and negatively impact your operation's profitability.

Assess Your Current Situation

Cattle on a field during winterIt's not too late to prepare your herd for winter. By evaluating your herd's body condition score (BCS), vaccination status and environment, you will be able to develop a plan unique to your herd's needs. Body condition is rated on a 9 point scale with 1 equaling emaciated and 9 equaling obese. Ideally, each member of your herd should have a BCS of 5 to 6, to ensure best health and fertility throughout winter.; Cattle that are in good condition with a fat layer are better able to withstand the cold than their thinner counterparts. The layer of fat gives the animal an additional layer of insulation to maintain body temperature.

Winter is a good time to ensure that you are up to date on your vaccination and deworming programs. According to Southern States Livestock Feed Sales Manager Mike Peacock, "A proper vaccination program covering virals, not just clostridials, will aid in preventing weather stress induced respiratory problems." The cooler months also provide an excellent opportunity to get a handle on any internal or external parasites that may be aggravating your herd.

One of the best ways to help your cows combat winter weather is by providing a windbreak. A windbreak can be made of permanent or portable fences, a shelterbelt of trees, or a three sided shed, however this must be cleaned out on a regular basis to avoid other potential problems. All of these solutions will enable the cattle to seek needed protection from the wind, especially during periods of bitter temperatures. If you had windbreaks established last winter do a visual inspection to make sure they are still standing after the severe summer storms we experienced this year.

Potential Health Risks

The stresses of temperature fluctuations can cause sickness and even death in beef cattle. Some common issues are respiratory diseases, hypothermia, frostbite, loss of body condition and hoof problems. Stress can cause the suppression of the animal's immunity thus allowing bacterial or viral diseases to overcome the respiratory system. Not only do respiratory infections require medication administration, but it will involve more time and effort as injections require individual animal handling. A sick beef cow in the winter equals a decrease in gain and lower profits come spring.

Hypothermia and frostbite are directly related to frigid temperatures. Hypothermia occurs when the animal's body temperature drops well below normal levels. For cattle moderate hypothermia can start when their temperature goes below 85° F. Once in a state of hypothermia, blood starts to divert from extremities to protect vital organs. Frostbite most often affects teats, ears and testicles. Providing bedding for your cattle to lie on can help prevent frostbite on udders and testicles which can impact the fertility of your herd.

As the cattle work to keep their body temperatures stable, they burn even more energy than is normally needed for maintenance. Therefore without additional energy added to their diet body condition will decline. It is especially important to maintain good body condition in spring calving cows, otherwise they will be at risk for calving problems, have lower milk production and inferior colostrum.

Cold weather can also cause an increase in hoof problems as cows are turned out on rough, frozen ground. Abrasions caused from the frozen ground can become breeding grounds for infection once the ground thaws and mud seeps into the affected areas.

Winter Nutritional Requirements

Proper feeding during cold weather is an important herd management consideration. Rations that were previously formulated for your herd can become "unbalanced" and not meet the nutrient needs of the cattle. Unbalanced rations can lead to poor growth performance and weight loss. In cold weather cattle use more energy to maintain body temperature, condition and rate of gain. Therefore, it's important to talk to your local Southern States Feed Sales and Technical Representative to evaluate how best to handle your herd's nutritional requirements this winter. You will want to pay special attention to the nutrition requirements of your brood cows in early lactation and those entering the final 60 days of gestation.

To ensure that your herd receives appropriate nutrition based on their need split them into two groups, thin cattle and those with a BCS score of 5+. By sorting you can add extra supplementation to the diets of thinner members of your herd. Additionally competition between cattle also leads to timid, smaller or younger cattle not receiving their fair share of feed.

During the winter months you should feed cattle in the late afternoon or early evening. The energy from the feed will increase heat production during the night as a result of the animals eating and ruminating. Therefore your cattle will be producing more body heat at night while temperatures are the lowest.

Provide ample amounts of water. If water is not available, cattle will reduce feed intake, thus negatively impacting their rate of gain and causing potential health risks. Ensure that the water sources remain unfrozen.

Ready for Winter?

Winter is coming whether we are ready or not. By taking the steps mentioned above your herd won't just survive the winter, but thrive. Remember we can't control the weather, but we can reduce the effects of cold on our herds.

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