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Managing cold stress of cows

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Connor Biehler

Connor Biehler

Cattle are most comfortable within a thermoneutral zone where temperatures are neither too warm nor cold. This range is referred to as the upper and lower critical temperature. During the winter months, cattle experience cold stress anytime the effective ambient temperature, which considers wind chill, humidity, etc., drops below the lower critical temperature.

Most cattle producers understand that cold weather increases nutrient requirements. The questions that can often be overlooked are when do cattle begin to experience cold stress and how much does this change their nutrient requirements. Both the actual temperature and the wind speed interact to determine the effective temperature.

The lower critical temperature is influenced by both environmental and animal factors including hair coat and tissue insulation (body condition). In wet conditions cattle can begin experiencing cold stress at 59°F, which would be a relatively mild winter day. However, if cattle have time to develop a sufficient winter coat the estimated lower critical temperature under dry conditions is 18°F.

Cold stress increases maintenance energy requirements; however, it has no impact on protein, or micro-nutrient requirements. The general rule of thumb (for a cow with a BCS of 5) is to increase the energy density of the ration by 1% for each degree (Fahrenheit) below the cattle’s’ lower critical temperature. The classic response to cold stress is an attempt to increase voluntary intake. However, it has been documented that cattle maintained on native range or corn stalks may spend less time grazing as temperatures decline below freezing, which reduces forage intake and becomes more challenging to meet nutrient requirements. In many cases feeding greater amounts of low-quality hay to substitute for grazed forages may not provide sufficient energy. Therefore, providing additional energy by feeding a higher quality hay or a commodity supplement may be required.

Here are some management considerations to keep in mind regarding changes in feed intake in response to cold stress:

· Make sure that water is available. If water availability is restricted, feed intake will be reduced.

· If the feed availability is limited either by snow cover or access to hay feeders, the cattle may not have the opportunity to eat as much as their appetite would dictate.

· Be careful providing larger amounts of high concentrate feeds. Rapid diet changes could cause significant digestive upsets that could lead to mortality.

For more information on managing cold weather stress or Nebraska Beef Extension reach me at my office (402) 624-8007 or check out my website: for more information on Nebraska Beef Extension.


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