Livestock care in sub-zero temperatures

Make sure you are taking the steps to keep your animals safe and healthy this winter.

As we sit in our warm houses and look out the window at the bleak, cold, wintery landscape, don’t forget about our livestock that live out of doors. This brutal February weather appears to have no end in sight. With each degree drop in temperature below freezing, their energy requirements increase by 1 percent. Since the temperature has been easily 20 to 30 degrees below freezing, livestock will need 20 to 30 percent more energy to maintain their weight. Also if the wind is blowing or the hair coat is wet, energy demands substantially increase above the demands of the dropping temperature.

All livestock - including alpacas, cattle, goats, horses, llamas and sheep - should have free choice good quality hay in this weather, just to maintain their weight. Additional concentrates, such as grains, may also be needed if the individual animals are growing, late pregnant, lactating or are thinner than desired. Finally, free choice, frost free water is also important in maintaining adequate feed intake.

Further, it is essential to know if your animals are thinner than they should be. The best way to determine if their weight is appropriate is to utilize the body condition score (BCS) system. Depending upon the species, the score is reported as a number with denominator being either nine or five. Ideal weight is about 5/9, or 3/5. Further research on BCS can be found for all farm animals, sheep, llamas and alpacas.

Additionally, if you own horses, and blanket them, it is essential to remove the blankets every couple of days and check their BCS. Body condition can’t be determined by looking at the animal; you must feel the animal as described in the BCS charts as winter hair coats can hide an animal that is very thin until too late. If BCS is checked too late they are at risk of hypothermia (low body temperature) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Animals at the highest risk of problems are the young, the old, the late pregnant and those at the lower end of the social pecking order. This is especially true when young animals are kept with older more dominant animals that eat all the higher quality feed and leave only the discarded hay for the young, submissive animals.

For help with evaluation of your livestock or their nutritional needs, contact your veterinarian or local Michigan State University Extension educators to assure that your animals make it through the next couple of months when pasture will hopefully replace the blowing snow. 

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