Be on Guard During Cold-Weather Conditions

Cattle and livestock are the lifeblood of many farming operations, so when adverse winter weather sets in, farmers must be vigilant in caring for their large animals.

This means taking proper precautions to make sure the animals have the proper diet and hydration during winter storms and extreme cold. Failure to do so could stunt the growth of the animals, lead to a decrease in milk production, and could even lead to death of the animals or their fetuses.

Ensure proper nutrition

According to John Reed, an animal husbandry and nutrition expert with Granville Milling Co. in Granville, Ohio, the first thing farmers need to do in extreme winter conditions is to increase the quality of feed given to support daily energy requirements. For example, on average, the energy requirements for cattle increase by 2 percent for every degree drop in the wind chill temperature. This means the animals will expend much more energy in the winter just to stay healthy. Something to keep in mind: According to the Colorado State University Extension, a 20 MPH wind is roughly equivalent to a 30-degree Fahrenheit drop in temperature.

Reed suggests using grains such as corn, barley, wheat and oats to supplement regular roughage. And, farmers need to pay close attention to how much each animal is being fed, so each receives a fairly similar amount. Pregnant animals should have a separate feeding system to ensure they and their fetus continue to thrive.

According to Dr. Susan Kerr with the Washington State University Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research & Extension Center, farmers also should keep trace mineralized salt available at all times and protect it from the elements. She said horses and cattle do well with salt blocks, but salt crumbles should be provided for sheep and goats.


Don’t overlook hydration

An abundance of clean water also is of utmost importance during snowy weather. Reed said it is a common mistake among novice farmers to assume large animals are being adequately hydrated by eating or licking snow. Not having enough clean water can lead to coli and impaction. The CSU Extension suggests having a portable watering system in place to provide clean water to large animals, and if feasible, use heaters in water tanks to prevent the water from freezing and becoming inaccessible to the animals.

Kerr said daily water amounts range from three gallons for sheep to 14 gallons for cattle.


Providing shelter from the storm

Reed also suggests not waiting until the cold sets in to make sure that large animals have adequate shelter from the conditions. That means having sufficient space in the barn for each animal, and ensuring the beds and floor are as dry as possible.

The CSU Extension suggests that low-ceiling shed with an open front “provide excellent shelters for livestock.” Those sheds should have slot openings located along the eaves of the back of the shelter. The openings will allow enough ventilation and airflow through the shed to prevent snow from swirling and accumulating in abundance in front of the shed. The slot size along the eave should be 1- to 2 inches in size for every 10 feet of building width, and ridge vents are recommended. Farmers need to be careful not to overcrowd shed-type shelters, as livestock might develop respiratory disorders. Also, indoor shelters that are tightly closed might cause a lack of oxygen that could result in suffocation.

Farmers also need to take special care to make sure muddy areas are managed in order to prevent disease and illness from spreading across an entire herd. Foot and hoof diseases such as foot rot and thrush are more likely, and animals will be perpetually chilled if they linger in mud.


Have contingencies in place

The onset of a winter storm is not the time to begin gathering supplies and scrambling to put a plan of care in place. The CSU Extension suggests having tools, rope, blankets, lights and a portable generator with extension cords and plenty of extra fuel at the ready. Also, make sure tractors and other vehicles are maintained and reliable for cold-weather conditions.

And, while no one likes to think the worst, the CSU extension suggests that farmers make sure their insurance policies adequately protect them in case they suffer the loss of any large animals during extreme winter weather.


Pay attention to animal behavior

According to the Colorado State University Extension, monitoring animal behavior during extreme winter weather is very important. Here are some important points to keep in mind:

  • Livestock often will move away from the force of an oncoming storm, unless they are moving toward shelfter that is well known to them.
  • Older animals may follow or try to stay near young animals that are being moved or treated, due to herd and/or maternal instinct.
  • Extreme conditions during blizzards can cause livestock to become panicked or confused.
  • Animal survival instincts might affect a farmer’s ability to herd or move livestock during extreme conditions.
  • Livestock might avoid traveling directly into the force of an oncoming storm.
  • Livestock are likely to avoid areas or begin to panic where they have poor footing.
  • Livestock might resist or be hesitant to leave even limited shelter behind during storm conditions.


For additional resources, contact your local extension office, or visit; or

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