Livestock needs in cold weather

Livestock are very well adapted to handle cold weather, if certain needs are met

With winter weather conditions comes calls from residents expressing concerns about livestock care. Specifically, an increasing number of people concerned that the cattle, horses and sheep out on pasture are not well cared. An assumption often based on the fact that they are standing outside or with visible snow accumulated on their backs.

Livestock are very well adapted to handle cold weather; assuming that they have adequate water, appropriate type and amounts of feed, and some form of protection from the elements. There is no laws requiring enclosed shelters for livestock. Protection from wind, cold rains and wet snow conditions may be provided by buildings or by natural barriers and windbreaks. In some cases, placing animals into enclosed shelters can be detrimental, as barns that have been designed for human comfort are not necessarily suited for animal comfort.

Access to the outdoors is desirable as livestock will choose to be outside during all but the most inclement weather. Animals housed outdoors from fall into early winter become acclimated to the temperatures; their coats provide adequate protection from the elements. Forcing animals into an enclosed shelter may cause overheating. Resulting in the production of moisture in the form of sweat, in addition to respiration. Without adequate ventilation to remove moisture, livestock can potentially generate an environment that’s ideal in creating respiratory infections.

The increased focus on animal health and comfort has led to the building of cold housing, promoting the construction of free stall barns and the practice of placing calves in individual calf hutches on today’s dairy operations. These facilities address the importance of fresh, moisture-free air in livestock housing structures; as animals would have received when roaming on range.

Beyond a well-ventilated building: woods, stacked hay bales, fences or evergreen hedgerows, and natural hollows may serve well as protection from winter weather. Even with their backs covered with snow, the dry air trapped in their long-haired coats insulate them from the cold. Much like the snow on your house’s well-insulated rooftop, the snow on their backs is an indication that the cow, sheep or horse is warm inside.

Livestock’s hairy-coat needs to stay clean and dry to provide the best insulated protection. This is where a 2 or 3 sided shed may come in handy. Providing deep, clean, dry bedding will help keep animals warm. However, bedding can be provided outdoors to serve the same purpose. This can be prepared through the feeding of large hay bales; what’s not eaten becomes adequate bedding.

Traveling around the county, it’s not uncommon to see horses in multicolored blankets from early September through April or May of the following year. Sometimes the same blanket; whether rain or shine, at 20 degrees or 50. So, are coats a good thing for livestock housed outdoors? Unfortunately, once an owner decides to blanket an animal, their natural hairy-coat will no longer keep them warm. It’s now their responsibility to keep up with a daily blanketing routine to ensure health and comfort. In doing so, they’ve removed that animal’s ability to regulate its own body temperature and clean its own coat. So while it may seem humane, that’s not necessarily the case and certainly isn’t required for the health of animals housed indoors, or out.

Some livestock have evolved to endure the cold better than others. Producers need to keep a close eye on their herd, watching for additional signs of stress caused by cold weather. Very young and older stock (including those with previous health issues) are groups most susceptible to the wintry weather and potential frostbite. However, with a natural or man-made windbreak and a little extra feed to maintain body condition, livestock will be just fine outdoors.

About the Author: Lynn Bliven is the Agriculture & Natural Resources Issue Leader with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Allegany County, NY. She can be reached at 585-268-7644 ext. 18. She began her career working as a 4-H Agent and is currently working in Agricultural Economic Development; specializing in beginning farmer outreach, local food systems and livestock production. Lynn and husband Shawn operate a 52 acre farm in Rushford, NY raising Register Hereford Cattle and Katahdin sheep alongside 4 pleasure horses.



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