Considerations for Winterizing Feedlots

Posted: November 5, 2020 | Written By: Don Cleaver, Form-A-Feed Nutrition and Production Specialist

winterizing feedlots

An early burst of unexpected winter weather may have left many of us unprepared for colder temperatures.  With a couple of weeks of favorable weather in the forecast, there is still time to prepare your cattle facilities for winter. Taking some of these precautions ahead of time can save many headaches when real winter weather arrives.

Check and prepare automatic waterers

Follow the steps below to prep waterers.

  • Clean the valve chamber and drinking areas to remove any build-up or debris. For waterers that have floating balls, adjust the water level lower to provide a  ½ inch gap between the water level and the ball to prevent water from freezing to the ball.
  • Check the seals around the base of the unit and the concrete pad to ensure no gaps have formed that would allow air and water to penetrate the underside of the unit. Replace the all-weather sealant if needed. Sometimes rodents and insects will damage these seals over time.
  • Test the heating elements to make sure they are functioning. Wiring can go bad over time and need to be replaced. Some elements can last a long time while some can burn out within a few years.  Replace the heating element if it is showing signs of wear or if you can’t remember the last time the element was replaced.  Have spare heating elements on hand for emergency situations. Another option is to remove the elements in the spring and replace them the next fall.
    • If you notice cattle splashing or licking the water or not taking normal drinks, there could be a voltage issue leading to lower feed consumption. Have your waterer checked by an electrician.
  • Frost can travel from one object to the next. Centering your waterline in the riser (thermal) tube will prevent frost from potentially freezing your line.
  • Monitor cattle numbers for each water source. If there are herd size fluctuations or if there are other sources of water your herd drinks from during the winter, energy free units may freeze up.
  • Install optional heating sources to aid in keeping waterers frost free.
    • Immersion heaters can be placed under the float and valve with a cord running up through the casing. Be sure the cord and connections meet electrical code requirements.
    • Self-regulating heat cables (heat tape) can be wrapped around the valve and down the water line to help prevent freeze-up. 1

Troubleshooting automatic waterers

If you pour ice in the drinking area and it does not melt away there are two main causes.

  • If the ice melts on just one side of the unit, the heater of the opposite side may be malfunctioning, and needs to be replaced.
  • If none of the ice melts, then your thermostat may need to be replaced or power to the unit is faulty.

Contact the dealer of your specific watering systems to see if they offer additional winterizing and maintenance tips.

Following these guidelines will help reduce the chances of a freeze up and hopefully save you the cold experience of hauling hot water to thaw a waterer. If a waterer freezes, it may be tempting to let the cattle eat snow. However according to North Dakota State University Extension Service veterinarian Charlie Stoltenow, cattle do not adapt to eating snow as the sole source of water very quickly. They need to learn to paw and scrape to eat ice and snow as wildlife have learned to do.

Clean and prepare outdoor lots

If there are areas that you have experienced mud issues in the past, be sure to fix that now before the spring thaw and rains. You may need to redirect runoff and fill in low spots while you can. During times of mud, cattle performance suffers. Gains can decrease by 25-35% with Feed to Gain decreasing by 20-30%.2

Provide a clean, consistent source of bedding

Provide plentiful and constant bedding to the cattle. Bedding is often viewed as a cost but when you look at the studies that monitored performance, it turns out the returns are significant. Selling dirty and muddy cattle will reduce yields which can mean a $20-$40 loss per head.2

  • Let’s assume 6 pounds of bedding costs $0.12. The return for the better performance can be .77 pounds of gain at $1.05/lb which equals $0.81 for the gain. The F:G return can be about $0.14 for a total gain of $0.95 per day.3

Clean and adjust self-feeders.

Clean out build-up inside the feeder, being sure to also clean out any moldy feed that may have collected in the corners. Plug any holes or cracks. Set the feeder opening to 1 Inch for the winter months. Clean them again in early May and reduce the opening to ¾ Inch at that time.

Other cattle facility winter considerations

  • Windbreaks: Decide if you need a permanent windbreak for a facility. Many people have great success storing their bedding bales strategically to provide a wind break. Allow a gap small between bales to allow some wind to pass through.
  • Drafts: Cover any openings that can lead to drafts. This is especially critical if you are working with young calves.
  • Look for injury potential:– Look for any boards or metal objects that can injure an animal. This can cause an eye issue as well as bruising which will have a negative effect on yield. Watch for places an animal can get their head stuck. Also be mindful of any objects on the floor or ground that can create a lameness issue. Get them out before they freeze in for the winter.
  • Salt and lime: Have a salt and barn lime mixture ready and available to provide melting and traction to any parts of a pen that may ice up.

Taking these steps to prepare your facilities for the cold and snowy weather ahead can hopefully help prevent many issues from occurring and help your cattle to thrive throughout the winter.

1-Ritchie Industries publication
2-2011 Feedlot Forum ISU
3-2010 Feedlot Forum ISU