Cold Weather Adjustments for Cows - Frequently Asked Questions

Subscribe to our free E-Newsletter, "Agri-News" (formerly RTW This Week)Agri-News
This Week
 Proper feeding during cold weather is an important management consideration as cold weather can make previously “balanced rations” unsuitable for the nutritional needs of the cattle. This can lead to weight loss and reduced performance. Animals exposed to cold weather require more energy to maintain rate of gain, body condition, and to maintain body temperatures.

During cold weather does the breed of the animal have any effect on energy requirements?
The breed of animal, back fat thickness and the stage of production have a huge influence on the energy requirements of an animal, during cold weather. Thicker skinned animals have more insulation, reducing the amount of additional energy needed.

How does body condition affect energy requirements during colder temperatures?
Thin cows and overly fat cows require more energy for maintenance than optimal conditioned cows that carry enough fat for insulative needs but not to much fat to increase maintainance needs. Cows that lose to much weight prior to calving can end up with weaker calves and poorer rebreeding rates.

How does the cold weather affect a lactating cow’s energy requirements?
During lactation, cows require 40 to 60% more energy compared to the gestation period. If lactation occurs during cold weather, the cow’s ability to maintain condition and continue to provide milk will be seriously compromised if energy levels are not sufficient in the ration. A general rule to use, is for every 10 degrees the temperature is below –20 C at mid-day, beef cows require an additional 4 to 6 Mcals of digestible energy (DE).

How much grain can be fed during cold weather to meet the cow’s additional energy requirements?
Barley contains 1.5 Mcals DE per pound, so adding 3 to 4 lbs of barley to the cow’s ration during cold stress should meet the additional needs. Cows that are not on a grain ration prior to the cold weather may experience rumen upset if more than 8 lbs of grain is introduced into the diet at one time.

How does dry matter intake change during cold weather?
Cold weather increases dry matter intake by up to 30% . If the animal remains dry and a snow layer gathers on the hair coat it can add insulation value. Cold alone can increase the need for a change to the ration, however, since wet or mudded hair coats reduce the insulation value, this additional stress can cause dry matter intake to decrease. Increased wind speed reduces the hair coat insulation and increases maintenance requirements when the animal is cold stressed.

How can you provide additional energy to a ration?
Supplement cattle with high-energy feeds, like grain. Cold stress may not be alleviated by simply providing more bulky feed (i.e. hay, silage or greenfeed), without improving the energy density since cold stress reduces the efficiency of digestion.

Feeding additional straw or low quality forage will not meet the higher energy requirements of the animal. Straw contains 50% of the energy compared to barley on a pound per pound basis. Impaction can occur if animals consume large amounts of low protein straw or roughage during cold periods.

What are some management strategies that can be used to combat cold weather?

  • The effects of cold stress increase when wind speed increases and hair coat insulation value is reduced when wet or muddy. Simple windbreaks, shelters, bush or bedding can help cows cope with the extreme temperatures. Be careful not to force cattle into barns or enclosures during storms as the chance of getting wet (i.e. condensation dripping off of rafters or the roof) increases the longer they remain in close quarters.
  • Consider splitting the herd into management groups. Thin cows could be fed differently than the fat cows making the best use of existing feed inventories. Competition between cows often leads to timid, smaller or younger cattle not receiving their fair share.
  • Feed cattle in the late afternoon or early evening. The energy from feed that is available to keep an animal’s body warm is known as the heat increment of feeding. Incremental heat production is at its maximum 4 to 6 hours after the feed is consumed. Therefore, feeding late in the afternoon provides higher amounts of heat from fermentation overnight when temperatures are lowest, making the most efficient use of your feed supplies and meeting the cattle’s energy requirements.
Wintering - Cows and Bulls
Reducing Winter Cold Stress Increases Feedlot Production Efficiency
Beef Cow Body Condition Management

Maintained by staff at the Ag - Info Centre, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
For more information about the content of this document, contact the Ag-Info Centre.
This information published to the web on January 7, 2004.
Last Reviewed/Revised on October 27, 2014.