The latest round of winter snow and ice is over, but farmers are now dealing with longer lasting impacts to cattle. University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment specialists weigh in on what farmers and ranchers may encounter and how to get back on track.
The ground was already saturated before the recent rounds of cold, ice and snow. Cattle were already requiring more energy to maintain body weight and produce milk. UK ruminant veterinarian Dr. Michelle Arnold said that is going continue until the grass begins growing again.
“Depending on hay quality, farmers may need to use supplemental feed to meet basic nutrition needs of cattle,” Arnold said. “We often receive animals here at the UK Veterinary Diagnostic Lab for necropsy at the end of the winter months, and we find that they died of starvation. It is so hard for farmers to realize that cattle can actually starve to death while consuming all the hay they can eat, because crude protein and energy levels in the hay are low.”
Inadequate nutrition does more than affect the cow
If she is pregnant, her nutrition can severely impact the growth and immune system of the developing calf. Calves born during extreme winter events require extra attention to have the best chance at survival. If the cow is already at a nutritional deficit and then experiences cold stress, the calf is in danger. Often, calves’ body temperatures fall below normal in extreme cold. It may be because of a difficult or slow birth and the calf’s inability to quickly stand and nurse.
“Returning a calf’s core body temperature to normal, which is 100 degrees Fahrenheit, is paramount,” Arnold said. “It may be necessary to bring the calf indoors to warm it up if showing signs of hypothermia.”
Even with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, cattle can experience cold stress.
“When you combine the 30s and 40s with rain, cattle have to expend more energy to maintain body temperature,” said UK beef specialist Jeff Lehmkuhler. “Wet hair gets pressed down, limiting the insulating properties of the hair. Wet March days can be especially challenging on newborn calves if they are lying in mud. Matted hair won’t insulate as well.”
The best way to combat winter nutrition challenges is to test hay and then supplement with enough feed to make up the deficits. The UK Beef Cow Forage Supplement Tool can help farmers know how much to supplement. Producers can get help with hay testing at county offices of the UK Cooperative Extension Service.
“Even with this tool, you have to pay extra attention all winter and into early spring,” Lehmkuhler said. “Monitor feed intake and body condition score and make sure you’re always offering a complete mineral supplement and clean drinking water.”
Melting snow and ice will leave a muddy mess
Farmers who rotate where they feed cattle will fare better in muddy conditions. Feeding in the same spot can foster deep ruts and mud. Mud tends to be worse around feeding sites, watering areas and other places with high cattle traffic. As mud gets deeper, cattle require more energy just to pick up their feet and walk. Adopting the Sandhills calving system approach can help reduce exposure to scours pathogens. UK Master Grazer published recommendations on feeding and protecting pasture here.
Weather conditions will normalize this last week of February, and ranchers may even see an extended period of above-normal temperatures and precipitation through the first week of March.
“We’ll be getting back to seasonal norms soon,” said Matt Dixon, UK agricultural meteorologist. “Temperatures will be in the upper 40s to middle 50s across the state this last week of February. Despite multiple rounds of winter weather, the state has only averaged about two inches of precipitation through Feb. 21, which is a half-inch below normal for that time span.”