Cold cows

Temperatures throughout seemingly half the country plummeted during the final week of January, felt strongest in the Upper Midwest where people woke up to school cancellations and minus-30-degree weather. For local livestock producers, it was just par for the course in winter.

“I was out all day yesterday, despite it being 32 below when I got up,” said Dr. Gerald Stokka, associate professor of livestock stewardship at North Dakota State University. “We were working outside on a water issue and we survived very well. There was no wind and the sun was out, so we were just fine.”

Livestock producers in this region are well equipped at keeping their animals warm this time of year, and Stokka says it’s important to remember cattle here are very well-adapted to the region’s climate.

“Our charge is to provide some way of protection to our animals when it’s cold like this,” he said. “One of the ways we do that is we have built hundreds of thousands of windbreaks over the years to provide some wind protection. Evergreen trees in the wintertime are fabulous – probably as valuable as anything you have on your place because they do such a tremendous job of stopping wind, and that’s really the big issue.”

When it comes to keeping cattle warm in frigidly cold conditions, it’s not so much the temperature, but stopping or slowing the wind that is key. Other than windbreaks, portable panels can often help the cause as well.

“Are they as good as 10-12-foot-tall evergreen trees? No, they are not, but they sure make a difference,” said Stokka. “Anything to break that wind decreases the heat loss for an animal, and that’s a big deal.”

Stokka says the winds that are most difficult for producers to control are south and southeast winds.

“We don’t have natural windbreaks in that direction, so that’s where those portable windbreaks become a valuable tool,” he said. “We know the air is going to warm up from those directions, but as it’s blowing, it’s pretty cold.”

Another important area when it comes to keeping cattle warm during frigid conditions is bedding. If producers have nullified the wind through a windbreak and then supplied bedding for their animals, those animals are now insulated from the ground and protected from the wind, creating an actually comfortable environment for their animals.

“I love to visit with people that don’t have the familiarity about the practices up here when it comes to cattle,” said Stokka. “If you have a windbreak, dress warm and lay down in a straw bedding, it’s pretty nice actually. The same can be said for the cattle.”

Bedding can be made from a variety of straws – wheat, barley, corn stover or even flax. Oat straw bedding isn’t as common anymore in the region due to a lack of production in recent years.

“Anything that insulates those animals from the ground provides another layer of protection,” he said.

The final area to keep in mind when keeping animals warm during harsh conditions is feed. Stokka says cattle have been gifted with the rumen, which is really a big fermentation vat that produces heat.

“I’m still always amazed by it,” he said. “That heat source is actually performed by microbials and it keeps enough heat to keep the animal warm. As long as we provide enough fuel for that fermentation vat that these animals have, you’d be surprised how comfortable they actually are. They’re well adapted to this climate.”

For dairy cows, though, it’s a different story all together.

“Dairy cows don’t have the same thickness of the hide that our beef cattle do. That thick hide really provides good insulation,” he said. “During really cold temperatures, dairy cattle need to be indoors. Not necessarily inside a heated barn, but in a facility where their body heat can heat up the inside of the barn to a comfortable temperature.

“This is what winter is up here. We take it just fine and our cattle do too if we’re good animal husbandry people,” Stokka concluded.