Preparing for Winter Cattle Feeding

Posted: November 27, 2017 | Written By: By: Heidi Doering-Resch, M.S., Form-A-Feed Nutrition and Production Specialist

winter cattle feeding

It doesn’t seem possible that winter cattle feeding weather is here; yet if you go outside on days like today you are reminded how quickly mother nature changes the rules from those beautiful fall days.

We always hear about how much summer heat stress results in total dollars lost to the cattle industry, and yet we spend more days in cold weather working with cattle in the Midwest than we do summer. So just how does this impact our livestock, and how do we deal with it? Hopefully these items will prepare us before we are buried in snow about ways we can combat winter stress and continue to have cattle that show positive gains.

What are the main factors that reduce our positive gains during winter cattle feeding?

  1. Cold Temperatures
  2. Wind
  3. Mud
  4. Snow
  5. Rain
  6. Poor bunk management
  7. Poor quality feed

The top five factors attribute to the animals physiological drive to survive. What do I mean by that? If we have cold temperatures, our cattle call for increases in dry matter intake (DMI). We know this from calling our bunks every morning. An animal’s thermoneutral zone (TNZ) is between 59 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. When we get below this temperature, they must increase their intake anywhere from 2 to 25% depending on just how far the temperature has dropped. They are adapting to the increased maintenance needs it takes to just maintain their current body state. If we only have a reduction in temperature, an increase in intakes should be enough for that animal to continue to maintain some growth. If you add any of the remaining items on the list of seven, you have now added extra work to both the animal and yourself.

Anytime we add wind and either rain or snow, the animal’s needs increase substantially. If you get the animal wet and add cold temperatures and wind, you have the worst trifecta.

Oklahoma State showed just how much wet snow/rain and mud alongside cold temperatures and wind can negatively impact cattle performance on good quality black-hided type cattle.

winter cattle feeding
Hicks, B., 2007 OSU Beef Cattle Research Update


If you look at Holsteins, the same effects are noted, however it doesn’t take as much stress to send them right down to zero gain.

winter cattle feeding
Holt and Pritchard, SDSU. Managing heat and cold stress of feedlot Holstein steers.


So what do we do to help alleviate the effects of mother nature?

  • Provide wind breaks
  • Provide bedding and keep it dry
    • A wet underside doesn’t provide insulation to the animal
  • Maintain good ventilation in pens
    • Both for health and for dry hair coats
  • Keep mud scraped out of the pen
    • It should be easy to get to and from the feed bunk
    • Aprons should be clean of frozen debris or manure
  • Make sure water tanks are ice free and always open

The last two items on the big list of factors that reduce gains are items that we work towards every day regardless if it’s hot or cold out. When you add poor quality feed and poor bunk management to the top five issues already stated you further exacerbate the research shown above.

Feed quality should never be compromised. You are already dealing with cold stress and a reduction in consumption due to mud or cold. If you then provide poor quality feed, you are only setting yourself up for metabolic issues, further reductions in feed intake, or further veterinary problems such as clostridials.

Bunk management is something we work towards every day. When the bunks are filled with wet snow or rain, we reduce the potential for cattle to continue to consume a meal when needed. If the feed in the bunk and our bunk management is off, you will further throw cattle off feed when those cattle need the calories the most.

Lastly, it is important to remember that winter brings a lot of work to you, the cattle feeder. Cleaning out bunks, maintaining pen condition and doctoring cattle through the winter storms is not something easily dealt with both physically and mentally. Take the time to ask for help from employees. If you are diligent now in getting ready for winter, the stress will be less when the first real stretch of winter weather that mother nature throws at us is here.

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