Taking Care of Cattle in Winter

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There are 23 days left in 2022 as I’m writing this, and I’m wondering, “Where did it go?” Scientists all over the world debate about time – whether it’s real, an illusion, or just perception. Some have suggested the process of learning new information tricks the brain into believing time slows down. I get it, some of our days don’t need to feel any longer, but then you experience those “good ole days” you just wish you could hit pause on. You know those days I mean, right? I will spare you all the details of my good ole days and instead share some information that may be helpful as we move forward into winter.

In typical North Carolina fashion, the temperatures have been fluctuating between cold and warm. Predictions have been made this winter will be record-breaking cold. It’s important to think about your cattle through the winter and how we can protect them.

Young calves should be a top priority. They are the continued success of your herd. Newborn calves are in the highest risk category, especially before they dry off. The wet-hair coat does not protect the calf very well from cold temperatures and possible wind. Once it can nurse and get the proper amount of colostrum, and has a mother that licks it off almost immediately at birth, then it has a good chance of surviving. If the calf cannot get colostrum, which has 2-3 times the fat of “regular” milk, it does not have enough energy to maintain and regulate body heat. As calves get older, the use of windbreaks and shelters are helpful; proper nutrition is also critical in ensuring your calves weather the winter.

For cattle with dry winter coats the critical temperature is significantly lower than in those newborn calves. This temperature, referred to as lower critical temperature (LCT), is the temperature below which the animal must burn extra energy to keep warm. Young calves have an LCT that is close to 60-degrees Fahrenheit, while mature cows can be closer to 30-degrees Fahrenheit or possibly lower, depending on the animal. This all changes when precipitation is added into the equation – a 45 to 50-degree Fahrenheit LCT is not uncommon for cold, wet cows. Essentially, this means with each change in temperature below that LCT, the cow needs to increase her feed and energy intake to stay warm.

The biggest risk you run with bulls in winter conditions are damages to sperm production and fertility. Extreme cold can harm the genitalia of the bull (frostbite, testicle damage) which results in a decrease in sperm production, or at least in viable sperm formation. Because bulls have to regulate their testicular temperature by drawing the testicles up towards the body when it gets too cold, the scrotum has to be fully functional. Scarring or frostbite from extreme wind and/or cold can reduce the effectiveness of this temperature regulation. It’s important to provide enough bedding during the winter for your bulls; the bedding will serve as insulation for the bull.

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out. Contact Taylor Chavis, Extension Livestock Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 910-671-3276, by email at taylor_chavis@ncsu.edu, or visit our website at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center Website.