With winter in full swing, and the threat of freezing temperatures, it can be a real struggle for not only humans, plants and house pets but for livestock as well. Those of us with two legs can generally put on another layer, a thicker coat or go inside and warm up with something hot to drink. But what can ranchers, managers and 4-H members do to keep animals healthy and comfortable in winter?
The necessity of a clean and reliable year-round source of water cannot be overemphasized. People often mistakenly believe that animals can meet water requirements by eating snow or licking ice. With daily water requirements varying from three gallons (sheep) to 14 gallons (cattle), one can see that livestock would need to spend every waking hour eating snow to meet their requirements. Ice and snow consumption also lowers body temperature and increases maintenance energy needs, so it should be avoided at all costs. Water consumption is encouraged when water temperature is 37°F or above. Tank heaters, or bucket heaters may be required to ensure that water sources do not freeze. Be sure to follow manufacturers’ recommendations to prevent fires and electric shocks or electrocution of livestock. If heaters are not used, unfrozen water should be provided several times a day. Ensuring adequate water intake will encourage optimal health and performance of livestock and help prevent serious conditions such as colic and impaction.
Shelter is another obvious winter concern. Animals do not necessarily need or want to live in an enclosed barn every day in the winter and barns for shelter are not practical for large herds of animals such as beef cattle. Livestock can tolerate cold weather if fed properly for it. However, protection from wind and rain will decrease energy requirements and feed costs and increase animal comfort. Barns, huts, three sided sheds, hills, thickets of trees and solid or semisolid fences can all serve as adequate breaks from the prevailing winds. Please note there must be sufficient space for all animals to benefit or overcrowding and even trampling can occur. If animals do not have enough space and variety of landscape to select a spot protected from the elements, a shelter should be provided. Shelter requirements vary between species—sheep with thick fleeces will graze and spend a great deal of time outside during poor weather, but most goats prefer to stay dry than eat. If a structure is provided, be sure to keep the bedding dry and as clean as possible. Bedding helps insulate animals from the cold ground. However, in bedding soiled with animal wastes, ammonia fumes can build up quickly in the lower 18 inches where recumbent animals breathe; irritated respiratory lining is then very susceptible to pneumonia causing bacteria and viruses. Provide good ventilation so the air seems fresh, but do not permit drafts in the structure. Again, prevent overcrowding and make sure there is enough space for all animals.
Blankets can be used daily or as needed to retain body heat for individual animals. This technique is most common for elderly or “hard-keeping” horses or show lambs and goats. Side note - the portion of the blanket closest to the animal should not become wet.
Livestock’s maintenance nutritional requirements can increase significantly during cold weather. Requirements increase dramatically if animals become wet and/or there is appreciable wind. Lowest critical environmental temperatures for livestock vary according to species, but 20 degrees or 32 degrees Fahrenheit are often used as the lowest temperature dry livestock can tolerate without additional energy demands to support normal body temperature. Energy requirements for an animal with a healthy and dry winter coat increase by one percent for every degree the wind chill temperature falls below the LCT. Energy requirements for an animal with a wet coat increase by two percent for every degree drop in the wind chill temperature. Energy can be provided through grain or additional roughage (hay). Roughage is generally preferable due to its feeding safety, lower cost and greater heat released during digestion. However, hay is in short supply in most areas this winter, so a grain (corn, barley, wheat, oats, etc.) may be more accessible and affordable.
Animals fed directly on the ground will often waste 50 percent of their hay, as will animals that are fed more than they can consume at one feeding. Whatever feeding method is employed, please make sure there is adequate bunk or head space so every animal has the opportunity to eat its share of the ration. Dividing animals into groups based on nutritional requirements and feeding groups appropriately will make correct feeding more likely. Don’t overlook minerals in the winter. Keep trace mineralized salt available at all times and try to protect it from the elements. Although horses and cattle do well with salt blocks, salt crumbles are best for sheep and goats.
Jessica Sanders, Denton County AgriLIfe Extension , 4-H Youth Development