Friday, December 7, 2007

Apple #285: Cows in Winter

The building where I work is near some farmland, including a cow pasture. The other day, it had snowed a couple inches or so, and the cows were out. In the snow. I wondered what they do in the snow. Do they snuffle through the snow to find grass, or do they just wander around and eat the snow? And just in general, what do you do with cows when it snows?

Somebody left these cows out in the snow.
(Photo from Utah State Cooperative Extension)

  • Well, apparently this is a subject of some debate among cattle farmers. Some farmers say that cows get too thin and sick if you leave them outside during the winter (this is called "outwintering"). They say if it gets icy, the cows can slip and fall and maybe break a leg. These farmers also say that high winds and rain make the animals the sickest in winter. Of particular concern is the likelihood that milk cows can get frostbitten teats. Yikes!
  • Other farmers say the cows prefer to be outside, and as long as it's not too icy, and if you give them windbreaks -- high walls or something tall like bales lashed together where they can stand to shield themselves against the wind -- they'll be all right. Farmers who outwinter their cows generally do so because they believe their cows stay healthier if they can keep grazing all year round.

These cows live in the UK, where people have made limestone walls like this one all over the place. These walls act as excellent windbreaks for the cows.
(Photo from the Peak District National Park, Derbyshire, England)

  • Some farmers also say it's far less expensive to keep the cows outside because, even though it requires some more work on your part, you don't have to spend as much money keeping the buildings warm. Also, you don't have to pick up the forage, bag it, bring it inside, and feed it to the cows. You'd still have to bale the hay, but you can leave it out in the field or in feeders and let the cows go get it.

New hay bales left out in the snow for cows to graze from, with spaces between to provide shelter for the cows.
(Photo from Big Oak Ridge)

  • Apparently, cows need two basic types of food:
      • Something for roughage, like hay or stockpiled grass or even kale. Some farmers let the cows graze and get all the roughage they need that way, but most say you have to supplement the grazing at least somewhat.
      • Grain, which in the winter usually means some sort of corn or corn waste, but it could also mean cotton seed or, in the case of one farm, pizza crust!

Another way to make sure your cows get enough to eat is by "swath grazing," which involves laying down stretches of forage in the late fall and allowing the animals to graze for it through the snow during winter, as these Canadian cattle are doing.
(Photo by Duane McCartney, from the FAO's Grasslands of the World, Chapter 12)

  • If you're going to outwinter your cows, you have to feed them more than you would if you kept them in the warm barn. This is because the cows need more energy to keep warm while they're outside, and they're going to move around more and get more exercise. So you have to feed them about 15% to 20% more than you would otherwise. Since cows eat about 90 pounds of food a day per cow, that's an additional 13 to 18 pounds of food per day.
  • Farmers also disagree on the best way to water the cows in the winter. Eating snow to get water is not an instinctive behavior for cows, but after about three days, they figure it out and will eat the snow.
  • Some farmers they'll eat the snow and do fine, as long as you make sure to turn them out into areas where the snow is fresh and clean. One Canadian farmer says, "Canadians . . . said that their cows do better eating snow than drinking large amounts of cold water."

Cow eating snow, after having learned to do so.
(Photo from Wie IST das Wetter?)

  • Others say it's hard to make sure the cows are in clean snow, and they won't eat snow if it's crusted over, so you need to provide the cows with water tanks -- heated, if you can afford it, or otherwise you go out there yourself and crack the ice off of it for the cows.
  • All cows will grow longer hair as winter approaches. If you put them outside, their hair will grow longer still, around six to eight inches long depending on the type of cow and your location. Some people have coats or sacking drapes made for their cows. They say the cows wearing the coats will stay outside in even the worst weather and continue to graze and feed.
  • Cows that are ready to give birth (calve) are kept inside. Smaller cows may also be kept inside and fed until they reach a healthy enough weight to be outside. Less hardy animals can be, um, sent elsewhere.
  • But most farmers say that, if you give the cows high-quality hay, keep a close eye on their health, and ensure that the food and water supply are adequate, most cows will actually be healthier by virtue of having stayed outside and walked around and eaten in the snow.

Cows in Missouri, grazing through snow in February. Agricultural researchers grew annual feed rather than hay and let the cows graze on that. They saved lots of money, and the cows did very well on the annual feed besides.
(Photo from the Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station)

Ed Brick, Outwintering dairy cattle: animal health issues, UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems
Jeremy Hunt, "Out wintering cattle can be worth the effort," Whitebread Shorthorn Association
"Significant savings make outwintering attractive," Farmers Weekly Interactive, March 12, 2007
Outwintering Issues Summarized by FWO from Graze-L, Owenlea Holsteins
Outside winter feeding on forage basics, Trumpline Stackyard, September 12, 2005
Watering Cows with Snow - Frequently Asked Questions, Government of Alberta Agriculture and Food
National Agricultural Library, All about Dairy Cows


  1. my friend paco says you should call this "ze daily apple" in a french pronunciation.


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