The cold weather and frozen precipitation that soon will be upon us bring their share of challenges. But with some adaptation and preparation, both man and beast can weather the storms in fine shape.

Cattle can take quite a bit of cold weather if they're ready for it, says Greg Lardy, an Extension nutritionist with North Dakota State University (NDSU). The temperature at which cattle become uncomfortable depends on their acclimation to cold weather and the thickness and dryness of their hair coats.

“If it's been raining prior to getting cold and cattle are wet, the hair doesn't have nearly the insulating ability,” he says.

To cope with a damp cold like that, cattle usually increase feed intake. But as the temperature drops farther, the feed intake response doesn't always compensate for the extra energy they need to stay warm, he says.

To minimize loss, producers need to think ahead in the fall to get their animals and facilities ready. Specific winter preparations usually depend on the climate, but here are some tips to consider.

  • Make sure cattle are well shielded from the wind and cold. Protection from the wind and the cold ground underneath them helps cattle avoid performance and weight losses, says Charlie Stoltenow, Extension veterinarian at NDSU.

    Make sure shelters are in good condition. Provide windbreaks. One temporary windbreak option is strategically placing round bales so the animals can get behind them — maybe separated by a fence. Or store the bales where you can easily move them to set up that kind of protection later, he says.

    For instance, at the John E. Rouse Beef Improvement Center near Saratoga, WY, manager Mike Moon stacks large, round bales into giant V-shapes to create “wedges” (see “Triple-Duty Hay Wedges,” September BEEF, page 22).

    Moon snugly stacks the bales two deep with the bottom bales sitting vertically and the top bale horizontally. The two, 125-ft.-long wings are arranged at a 90° angle to each other and pointed directly into the prevailing winds.

    This configuration and orientation greatly reduces wind velocity as much as 400 ft. downwind. It also virtually eliminates the accumulation of blowing snow in the protected area, not only protecting the cattle but allowing Moon to feed hay off the end of the wings throughout the winter.

    Stoltenow also suggests bedding the animals with straw or old, low-quality hay to protect the feet, extremities and udders. This is especially helpful in really cold climates or for extra protection during calving.

    “What they want to do is lay down, curl up, pull their legs underneath them and keep warm,” he says. “If they don't have a place to do that, then we've got problems.”

  • Remove or minimize mud and other obstacles that hamper cattle movement.

    “Anything that restricts their movement or desire to go to the feed bunk is probably going to ultimately affect performance in some way,” Lardy says.

    During frequent freezing and thawing, mud between the feed bunks and mounds, or between the feed bunk and shelter, can cause injuries, he says.

    “Cattle can get hoof injuries, damage the hoof wall or become lame because they are walking through half-frozen mud and manure,” Lardy explains. “They get scraped up on that rough surface.”

    Thoroughly cleaning out pens in the fall can help reduce mud problems, says Terry Mader, an Extension beef cattle specialist at the University of Nebraska. Even the dry stuff needs to be removed, he says. He also suggests repairing mounds and making sure the pens are designed to drain well.

  • Closely manage weaning dates and cows' body conditions. For cow/calf producers — especially those in areas with drought problems — this is critical, Lardy says.

    A cow with a body condition score of 5 or higher is much better able to cope with cold weather because of the fat cover's insulating ability, he explains.

    In general, weaning by mid-October gives cows 30 to 60 days to gain some weight and condition before the demands of cold stress and extra energy for pregnancy.

    “If you've got cows that look thin now, the best thing you can do is get the calves off them,” Lardy says. “Once you go past mid-November, whether the calves are on them or not, they aren't going to gain a lot of weight.”

    Don't leave cows on pasture that's overstocked, and don't delay the supplementation program, he adds.

  • Look critically at how you handle sick or debilitated animals. These animals need to pen up where they will be a constant reminder of their special needs, Stoltenow explains. The pen needs to be big enough to adequately accommodate 10% morbidity, and animals need to stay in that pen until they are well.

    Fall is the time to think about this, he says. “When the ground is frozen is not the time to think about putting in additional pens.”

  • Keep a one- to two-year supply of forages or hay on reserve.

    “Up here (North Dakota) some of our producers had low reserves last year,” Stoltenow recalls. “They just hadn't banked on an extended time of winter and not being able to winter graze.”

    If you don't keep a large supply on hand, ask yourself if you can actually access and afford more.

    “Once the supplies are short, things start going up 15 to 20% just because they're short,” he cautions.

  • When winter arrives, keep a constant, palatable supply in front of the cattle. And feed them only what they are going to consume or a little more, Stoltenow says.

  • Keep water supplies open in the winter. And once you start watering, keep watering, Stoltenow says. In some regions with adequate snowfall, cattle can be trained to get their water through snow, but it has to be snow, not ice.

Outlook For 2001-2002

To find out how the upcoming winter season is likely to impact your region, look for the U.S. Winter Outlook on the Web site for National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. The URL is or link to it through

Preparing Pastures For Winter

Giving pastures a little extra attention in the fall can improve forage plant survival through winter and offer more feed for grazing in the spring, says Maribel Fernandez, University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Here's what Fernandez recommends to help get plants ready for winter.

  • Give plants the chance to grow and store energy. Stop grazing at least 30 days before the first hard freeze. Put the animals back on the pasture after the plants and ground are frozen.

  • Avoid over-grazing and over-cutting. At the end of grazing season, leave at least a 4-in. stubble.

  • Fertilize. Apply nitrogen right after the last grazing or cutting.

    Inorganic fertilizers work most efficiently when the soil is wet. Manure also works well. But, if the weather is dry after application, expect nitrogen loss through evaporation. If it rains excessively, watch out for nitrogen leaching to groundwater or phosphorus runoff.

    Another alternative is compost, which acts as a “slow-release” fertilizer. It prevents nutrient leaching and improves soil structure.

  • Control weeds. Early fall is the best time to eliminate perennial weeds because herbicides will be transported to the roots. Do this while leaves and stems are still active.