Winter cattle

Matt Schelling knows a little about brutal winter weather.

The dairy producer’s farm is in Sioux County in northwest Iowa, where conditions can put a strain on farmers. That is why he makes sure he is prepared for such an event.

“A lot of it comes down to equipment,” Schelling said. “It has to start and work properly.”

Perhaps more than most farmers, livestock producers have to be especially ready to deal with cold temperatures and heavy snowfall. Water supply is one of the main concerns, according to University of Illinois Extension beef educator Travis Meteer.

“Sometimes when we have a quick freeze or hard freeze and cattle are used to water off ponds, they can get in trouble getting out on the ice,” he said. “They may fall through.”

Schelling, a third-generation dairyman, has experienced temperatures as low as minus 30 on his farm. That poses challenges not just for animals, but for people.

“One area of concern is employees,” he said. “With snow-removal equipment — whether it’s tractors, snow blowers or whatever — all that should be serviced and ready to go ahead of time so you can get milk trucks, livestock trucks and other things in and out. And more importantly, employees.”

Schelling takes extra precautions to protect cattle when winter approaches.

“The main thing is keeping them comfortable and healthy, obviously,” he said. “My focus on preparedness is to make sure they have fresh water and that all that is going to work in the coldest weather. Checking things like heating elements ahead of time is pretty basic.”

Providing access to water is likely the most important consideration for livestock producers.

“Everybody probably has a strategy,” Meteer said. “If we don’t have heated water and if there are streams, cattle can have access to a flowing stream. Ponds are the biggest things that can cause cattle trouble in winter. You have to chop ice to keep a spot open. You keep an open hole in the pond at all times so they’re not venturing out to try to find water.”

Other options include installing a hydrant or other water source in the lot.

Schelling also makes sure vaccinations are up to date.

“That’s very important, that they stay healthy through the stressful weather, especially the respiratory system,” he said.

Commercial fruit growers also keep an eye out for winter trouble. Perennials such as strawberries require special consideration in the wake of cold temperatures.

“They’re going to put covers on them when temperatures are going to drop significantly, like below the 20s,” said Elizabeth Wahle, a University of Illinois horticulture educator. “Traditionally, with matted rows from days gone by, straw was always used and is still used by a lot of growers. Others are going to use plastic covers.”

They are heading into dormancy now, a time when growers will begin protecting the plants. As they droop onto the ground, producers will place floating covers on the rows, held down by anything heavy enough to keep them covered.

“Some just have onion sacks with rocks on the ends,” Wahle said. “Others use rebar or cinder blocks. I’ve seen just about everything.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.