What happens when a cow or a horse or most any other outdoor animal gets cold? They grow fur. They eat. They stay warm.
Folks who are not familiar with livestock that spends its life outdoors think the animals are being abused when they see the stock standing in a snowy pasture as the degrees dip toward zero. They think those animals should be in a barn at the least. One complainer suggested blankets for all horses. On the Western Slope there has been more than one call to Animal Control about abused horses standing out in the snow. But, generally speaking, the animals are okay. In fact, according to vets and researchers, cows, in particular, like it a bit cooler than we humans do.
Most researchers in the less temperate regions of the country agree that cattle like it between 25 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Cattle and other mammals who live outdoors in all kinds of weather have some built in safeguards and can handle a lot more than most people think they can.
According to Emily Wilmes, a livestock specialist in Minnesota – they know about cold there – the range of temperatures where cows and horses feel comfortable and are safe from harm is pretty broad. When the mercury drops to 25 degrees F, humans are donning coats and scarves. Cattle take the first sign of falling temperatures to trigger the growth of their winter coats. Horses do the same. Of course sheep have their wool. If you have ever been close to any stock in the winter, you will have seen the hair getting pretty shaggy.
As temperatures continue to fall, livestock will begin consuming massive amounts of food. Their highly active metabolism will turn that nutrition into body heat to a much greater degree than we humans do. Cows, for example, have a core temperature almost three degrees higher than humans. Cows are not as concerned about their waistline and they will readily eat to maintain their temperature.
If there is any mistake made by a cattle grower, it would be to not have enough nutritious feed available during cold weather events. That is why, this time of year, you are seeing the stockpiling of feed in the Uncompahgre River Valley. Winter feed supplements from ground corn to simple hay lies in wait. Cattle feed is the number one crop in the valley, way ahead of corn for human consumption.
The bottom line, according to Wilmes, with good body condition and health, a good coat and dry conditions a cow can handle temperatures below freezing. As the temps head toward zero, cold stress management comes into play.
The primary tactic is to make sure the animals have enough feed. Animals deal with cold stress by voluntarily taking in more calories, and they don’t count them. The feed can be simple.
“Cold stress increases maintenance energy requirements but does not impact protein, mineral or vitamin requirements,” says Wilmes. A cow or horse will eat about two percent of their body weight under normal conditions. Under cold stress situations, the animal should eat about 128 percent of its normal daily diet. So if we give a cow 16 pounds of excellent feed when its warmer, they need to get 20.5 pounds of the same diet when it gets cold.
Wind is a negative factor in cold stress in stock. Producers with large, open, and flat winter pastures often will plant trees as a windbreak. In some ranges cattle will seek protection themselves in washes and among trees like the ubiquitous junipers we find here in Western Colorado.
For equine breeders, blankets are sometimes used to protect horses. But some vets caution horse owners to be careful in the use of blankets. Many vets agree that there are more reasons not to use blankets then there are to use them. For example, horse owners should recall that when it is cold, horses grow more fur and the fur fluffs. This creates air spaces, like goose down does. Those air spaces warm up and help keep the animals warm. When you put a blanket over that fluffed fur you mat it down, damaging the heat capturing ability of the fur. The animal could end up colder than without the blanket.
Michael A. Cox is a Montrose-based content provider. He may be reached at email@example.com