Managing livestock in winter months

Tony Nye - OSU Extension

The weather is a major topic in itself with all the rain and mud we currently have. The silver lining would be, “It could be snow” and “It could be a lot colder.” We know the impact it has had with grain harvest, but what about our livestock?

Animals are more tolerant to cold and wind than people, but it’s still important to make sure they’re well cared for when the weather becomes severe.

In talking with several livestock producer friends of all species, the weather has already had a measurable impact. The mud and rain has made feeding hay difficult and there has been more hay waste because of it.

The cold damp weather has impacted body condition on some animals, and has many producers supplementing more feed and grain to try to keep proper body condition on their animals.

Although it is a lot of common sense, it is still important to consider several items for winter livestock management. Knowing the best way to care for your livestock during winter months will ensure they are staying healthy, comfortable, and adequately fed.

First off, how much protection from weather animals need really depends on the type of livestock. Pigs need to be in a draft-free building, especially piglets. (Depending on the age and size of the piglet supplement heat may need to be provided.)

Other species like horses, sheep, and goats really just need a protected area where they can get out of the wind and rain. An air-tight building isn’t necessary.

Cattle can take the cold better than other types of livestock, but they require extra feed, and plenty of water to drink.

Although most animals can stand wind chills above 20 degrees, without stress, they need protection from cold rains, wet snow, and wind. Natural protection and windbreaks may be adequate in some situations, but the best option is a three-sided shed opening away from prevailing winds.

Any shelter should have enough room to fit every animal inside, and have clean, dry bedding that is changed regularly. Keep in mind that most livestock do not want to be inside all of the time, and they will actively seek out shelter when conditions are adverse.

In addition to a shed, consider the availability of other cover such as hills, thickets of trees, and windbreaks. Now is the time to assess the shelter and windbreaks you already have, and see if they need any updates or repairs.

An often overlooked factor of shelter is ventilation. Our instinct is to keep shelters sealed up tight in order to keep them warmer, but remember many of our livestock species can stand colder temperatures than we can.

It is important that no matter where they are, there is good airflow. Especially with the amount of dust that can get into the air from bedding.

Stuffy, dusty air can lead to respiratory and other problems. An easy way to check if your livestock have good ventilation is to look at them, and listen. If they appear to be breathing heavily, or are coughing, that may be a sign that the ventilation is poor.

Proper ventilation also keeps excess moisture out of facilities.

Besides shelter, another major component of winter care is nutrition. Animals use a lot more energy in the winter months to keep themselves warm, so it may be beneficial to increase the energy density of the feed.

Besides energy, also consider the amount of fiber in the diet. Fermentation of fiber releases energy that helps heat the body.

Good quality grass hay or alfalfa can be an effective way to encourage body heat production. It is also less expensive than just increasing the amount of grain fed for energy.

Hay in 2018 in general is not of the highest quality due to the excessive rain this year, delayed harvest, and maybe adequate fertility, so get you hay analyzed for nutritional value. Feeding programs can then be adjusted more appropriately for the species you are feeding.

Another crucial point of winter nutrition — don’t forget the minerals! Whether you have cattle, horses, sheep, or goats, make sure you still have a mineral lick, tub, or crumbles available but protected from the elements.

When thinking about feed, you should also be thinking about water — another important part of winter livestock care. Just like any other time of the year, your animals require clean, fresh drinking water.

Although your livestock can get some of their water from eating snow, keep in mind that, depending on species, your animals will need 3-14 gallons of water each day or more!

Many farmers find heated waterers to be the most convenient as they usually keep water from freezing. If you don’t have a heated waterer, you should be bringing fresh water — around 50 degrees — to your livestock several times a day to encourage adequate water consumption.

In wintertime we generally think about managing snow, but this year so far it is mud we must be managing for/against. Besides the possibility of making your livestock dirty and/or wet, standing in mud can also cause problems like hoof rot.

Solutions to livestock standing in mud include laying down gravel or wood chips, moving animals to another location, or creating a sacrifice area in a well-drained spot.

All of these components tie back to keeping your animals safe and healthy during winter. Be sure you are watching the health of your livestock closely, as winter can be very stressful on an animal’s body.

Pregnant animals especially require a watchful eye. If you ever have any concerns about the health of your animals, or if you think something may be wrong, be sure to contact your veterinarian.

Giving attention to your livestock’s shelter, nutrition, water, environment, and health can ensure that your animals will make it through our coldest months happy, healthy, and safe.

Tony Nye is the state coordinator for the Ohio State University Extension Small Farm Program and has been an OSU Extension Educator for agriculture and natural resources for over 30 years, currently serving Clinton County and the Miami Valley EERA.

Tony Nye

OSU Extension