For the past three weeks, Northern Nevada and Utah have seen extremely cold temperatures. Here’s an example: Utah’s Cache Valley is home to a large percentage of the state’s dairy farms, and morning temperatures have routinely been -10 degrees with daytime highs barely creeping into the single digits. For insight into how dairy cattle deal with such temperature extremes, we turned to the experts – our local dairy farmers and one of our local large-animal dairy veterinarians and asked, “Do Cows get Cold?”
Tyler Sorensen, a veterinarian in central Utah says, “Yes, just as cattle suffer from heat stress, they can also suffer from cold stress. While cows naturally make seasonal adaptations to deal with changing temperatures, one of the most important things we, as animal stewards, can do is to keep cattle in good body condition by providing additional food as well as areas such as barns and wind breaks.”
Sorensen notes that cows acclimate to cold weather by growing a longer winter coat, “This does a lot to keep a cow comfortable in cold conditions. This adaptation can be negated, however, if the hair becomes wet, matted, or laden with manure, so dairy farmers work hard to keep their cows clean and dry,” he says.
Cows in good body condition tend to handle cold temperature extremes better. “Cows will naturally build up fat stores, which offer insulation.” Sorensen says, “During cold weather, cows burn these fat reserves – if not kept up, they can compromise their body condition.” To keep their cattle in optimal shape, dairy farmers work with animal nutritionists and veterinarians to consider increasing food intake or offering their cattle a winter food ration that is more energy-dense than their typical meal.
Kyle Anderson, a dairy farmer in Newton, UT worries most about his calves during periods of sustained cold weather. With few fat reserves and limited time to adapt, younger animals may have a more difficult time weathering consistently cold temperatures. He, like other Utah and Nevada farmers use lamps, blankets and wind breaks to keep calves as healthy and comfortable as possible.
“When cattle experience cold stress, everything suffers,” says Sorensen, “milk production decreases, reproduction takes a back seat, and the general health of the cow is at stake. There are steps we can and do take to minimize this and keep our cattle as healthy and comfortable as possible all year long.”
Like people, cows notice this chilly weather, but dairy farmers and veterinarians are constantly monitoring their herds to keep them as comfortable, warm, and safe as possible.