With severe winter weather many of us animal lovers spend a fair amount of time and energy trying to provide comfort for our four-legged charges. For those of us in agriculture, this can be a challenge especially when neighbors don’t appreciate the methods we use to care for domesticated livestock. Every now and then somebody gets quite concerned to see livestock outside when the temperatures are low and the wind is blowing.
Let’s consider appropriate winter livestock husbandry as outlined by veterinarians and University professionals.
The two most important factors in livestock health are the effects, both internally and externally, of air and water. Both should be fresh and pure, and too much or too little of either will cause problems. All livestock suffer from the cold if they are wet. Cattle and horses, if given access to three-sided, shed-type livestock shelters open to the east or south, will stand under it during a cold rain, but will often be found outside, bedded down or feeding, on a cold clear night or day. Even with their backs covered with snow, the dry air trapped in their winter coat of longhair insulates them from the cold (like un-melted snow on the roof of a well-insulated house, it is an indication that the cow or horse is warm inside).
All classes of livestock need plenty of fresh air, but it’s often difficult to protect them from extreme cold and wind-driven snow or rain indoors without creating drafts or closing a building so tight that air becomes damp and foul. Ambient temperatures can impact the amount of dry matter animals eat, providing an opportunity to compensate for increased maintenance energy needs. When livestock are experiencing cold weather they eat more to generate additional body heat compensating for the cold weather conditions.
Producers typically provide livestock with natural or man-made windbreaks, which are not the same as a barn. Many non-farm people insist livestock be enclosed in a nice tight barn. In fact, poorly managed barns combined with poor ventilation may actually hamper efforts to improve the environmental conditions and harm the enclosed livestock.
While shelter is an obvious winter livestock management 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. As discussed above, livestock can tolerate cold weather if fed properly. However, protection from wind and rain will decrease energy requirements and feed costs. Shelters must be of 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 can 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.
The next time you see a group of well managed livestock standing outside on a day when you want to be inside, remember some of the points made here.
Just because I have an over indulgent nature with my household pets it does not necessarily follow that livestock would enjoy similar care. Our neighboring farmers typically seek maximum profits. In order to maximize farm profits from livestock enterprises the farmer must care for the animals well. Your community farmers are all about providing maximum winter comfort for their animals.