Cows can’t put on a winter coat when it starts to snow, so how do they stay warm in the winter? Do cows get cold in cold weather? You may be surprised how cattle handle the cold winter weather, and how we can help keep them warm from the inside out.
During the winter, we often receive questions about how cows adjust to wintery conditions. Questions like, “do cows get cold?”, “how do cows stay warm in the winter?”, and “what do cows eat in winter when there’s no grass on the ground?” are a handful of the questions we hear.
Before winter arrives, we gear up to make sure our cattle have everything they need. However, it’s important to note that they’re naturally equipped to handle low temperatures, ice, wind and snow. With good body condition, a clean, dry coat, dry bedding, shelter, fresh water, and good nutrition, beef cattle can tolerate cold temperatures very well.
Do cows get cold?
Cows are warm-blooded animals with a core body temperature of 101°F. Belive it or not, they actually prefer colder temperatures to extremely hot summer days.
Since a cow’s normal average body temperature is 101°F degrees, they prefer temperatures between 40-60°F degrees. That means when we, as humans, are starting to think about putting on a sweather or jacket, cows are thinking the temperature feels good.
How do beef cattle stay warm in the winter?
One of the amazing characteristics of beef cattle is that they acclimate to cold weather with thick skin and by growing a longer, thicker hair coat in the winter. This heavy winter hair coat provides natural insulation that protects them from the bitter cold.
When it snows, the hair catches the snow and forms a layer over the cow. This creates an air pocket between the snow and the cow’s skin, which is then warmed by the cow’s natural body temperature of 101 °F degrees.
In the winter, it’s very common to see frost or snow on a cows’ back that doesn’t melt because they’re so well insulated.
In addition to the heavy winter coat, when colder temperatures set in beef cattle increase their metabolic rate which helps maintain their natural heat production. This increases their dietary needs, so our cattle herd eats more in the winter. We talk more about this below
Why are beef cattle well suited for the cold?
One of the many reasons beef cattle do well in the cold is because they’re ruminant herbivores. This means they rely on plants for food, and that they use a four-chambered stomach for the digestion. This digestive process generates quite a bit of heat.
In the winter, cattle eat more food. This in turn increases the amount of fermentation in the rumen, and one of the biggest waste products of fermentation is heat. When we provide our livestock with more forage for their rumen, more fermentation happens and more heat is produced. The process helps keep cows warm from the inside out.
What’s the hardest weather condition for cattle?
Both air temperature and wind chill are factors in determining the worst weather conditions for livestock. Typically, the hardest weather condition for pasture cattle is a cold rain followed by freezing temperatures. This is usually when the cattle are brought into the barn to dry off before returning to the pasture.
Cold rain followed by freezing temperatures is especially hard on newborn calves. Since our calves are born in the pasture, they’re covered in fluid at birth (just like a human baby). If weather conditions are poor, the wet newborn calf gets colder and colder the longer it stays outside.
On our farm, when a calf is born in harsh weather and we realize that they’re not responding to their mother like they should, it’s critical to raise its body temperature as quickly as possible. That means we pick the calf up, put it in the truck, and take it to the barn. Then, we use what’s called an “animal warmer” to help them regain their natural body temperature.
An animal warmer looks somewhat like a large, dog carrier, and it’s big enough for a calf to lie down or stand inside it. Like its name suggests, the animal warmer has a small heater that circulates air around the calf and helps dry off and regain its body heat. Once the calf is warm and responding appropriately, we take it back to the field to be with its mom.
On our farm, numerous calves have been saved thanks to the calf warmer.
Do cattle have access to shelter?
All of our cattle graze in the field 365-days a year. However, when temperatures start to drop, we take numerous extra steps to make sure they’re protected, especially from wind.
First, we make sure our cattle are in fields with plenty of natural shelter, like cedar trees and thickets. They also get extra bedding, like straw, for even more comfort in winter months.
Next, we manage those fields to cut down on moisture and mud. In general, south facing slopes provide more sunlight that help keep areas dry and warm.
When temperatures drop to around 20 °F, we bring cattle into our large barns so that they are protected from the wind, snow, rain and ice.
What do cows eat in winter?
In the winter, our cattle eat lots and lots of hay. On our farm, a cow’s food intake will increase by about 20 percent in the winter. On average, one cow will eat five large bales during a typical winter
This means we are constantly providing them with quality hay that we’ve cut and stored earlier in the year. If needed, we also provide additional, veterinarian-prescribed mineral and supplements to keep them healthy in the winter.
As we’ve talked about before, hay is dried grass. Some farmers buy hay from other farms, but we’re blessed to have lots of pasture, so our hay comes directly from our farm.
Grass is one of the most important aspects of raising grass fed beef because it’s the grass that gives cows the nutrients they need to grow. Since lush green grass isn’t around in the winter, it’s very important that we harvest it in the summer so that our cattle have plenty to eat in the winter. This process of harvesting grass is called “making hay.”
We make hay and feed it to the cows in the winter so they have plenty of food and don’t have to dig through the snow covered ground to find grass.
Here’s a short video of us making hay bales in the summer and fall:
And here we are feeding some hay to cattle in the winter.
On average one cow will eat five bales during a typical winter. That’s a lot of hay!
We always make sure we make enough hay bales to feed all of our cattle during the winter, and we do extra just in case it’s a long winter.
What’s winter like on a farm? What do farmers do in the winter?
There’s always a job that needs to be done on a farm. Always.
Typically, winter is when we do some farm maintenance like work on equipment or fix fences.
Plus, our cattle must be taken care of every day. We take them hay every morning, and check them several times throughout the day to make sure they’re doing ok.
Have beef questions? We are here to help!
Do you want to learn more about beef? You can contact us or below are a few popular beef posts and recipes you may like. In addition, we have an entire ebook about beef that goes through purchasing and preparing beef from a farmers perspective.
- Buying a Cow. How Much Beef Is It?
- Steak Doneness: Temperatures, Touch Test & Charts
- Defrosting Meat: 4 Safe & Easy Ways
- Slow Cooker Pepper Steak
- Prime Rib Roast with Garlic Herb Butter
- Liver and Onions (2 different ways)
We have a weekly e-newsletter where we share about farm happenings, when our next beef availability is, and all things beef. When you do, you’ll get a cheat sheet with 9-must-ask questions before buying beef directly from a farmer.
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