Livestock and the Windchill: Why Farmers Don’t Get Snow Days

Cold temperatures pose a risk to not only humans but all animals. Let’s discuss how the cold affects livestock and how farmers work hard to make sure their animals are well cared for in the winter

By Dr. Melissa Moggy, Alberta Farm Animal Care

As the temperature drops, we make adjustments in our lives to stay warm. Thick socks, hot chocolate, and central heating. Similar to our cold-weather adaptations, livestock make adjustments and farmers keep a close eye in case they need assistance. All mammals have a thermoneutral zone, where they don’t need to use energy to maintain their normal internal body temperature. Towards the lower end of this zone, animals will grow a winter coat and seek out shelter from the cold wind.

Below the thermoneutral zone, animals will begin to experience cold stress. Cold stress, otherwise known as hypothermia, starts when the animal’s body temperature drops below normal. Animals are more susceptible if:

  • They are very young or old
  • They still have their summer coats or if they have been shaved
  • Their coats are wet or muddy
  • They don’t have shelter from the wind
  • They can’t move around well
  • If they are very thin
  • If they are fed a low-energy diet

 

To fight against cold stress, animals will burn more energy to keep warm. This will increase their demand for food and farmers will need to supplement them with high-energy feed; otherwise, they will lose weight. For this reason, animals must go into winter in good body condition. A thick layer of fat will also act as insulation and help keep the animal warm. Water is extremely important year-round, but farmers need to keep a close eye on their animal’s water sources so that they don’t freeze. Without water, the animals will not eat and will be less able to handle the cold.

Farmers monitor the weather year-round to identify poor conditions for their animals and will make management decisions to keep their animals safe and healthy. Shelter is provided to block the cold wind that can cut through their warm winter coats, and can come in many forms, such as a natural tree line, snow fencing, or a barn. However, some farmers will choose to keep animals that aren’t prepared for the winter in barns, such as horses that have had their hair clipped. Farmers will also offer their animals bedding to keep them dry and off the cold ground.

Finally, farmers monitor their animals to see how they are coping with the weather. If they appear to be suffering from severe cold stress, then farmers will respond quickly and may choose to call a veterinarian.

For more information, visit the Alberta Farm Animal Care website. If you are concerned about the care of livestock in Alberta or have questions about livestock care practices, please call the ALERT Line at 1-800-506-2273.

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