Feeding Highland Cattle During the Winter

Highland cattle are tough and weather resistant, but they are not super cows.  They need care during cold and wet weather just as any other breed would, although perhaps not quite as much. A program developed to prepare cattle for winter and minimize cold stress can minimize sick animals and is just plain good business sense.

Feeding Highland cattle during winter can be affected by a number of factors.  Size, frame, body condition, quality of feed and fluctuations in ambient temperature all have an affect on how well cattle may respond to a given feeding program.

Body condition score as determined in the fall, going into winter, can have a major effect on feed requirements.  As a general rule, cattle have a much harder time gaining weight in cold weather. Thin cows must be able to regain lost weight prior to calving, and thus must be given access to good quality forage and possibly other supplements for this to occur.  Cows in good flesh at the start on winter do not need to gain weight other than to account for the weight of the calf and uterine fluids.  This is much easier to accomplish than having to feed for weight gain in thin cows. Body condition scores of 5-6 (where 1 is emaciated and 9 is obese) are ideal for entering the cold winter months.

Thin cows have far more problems with cold stress than cattle in adequate condition..   Thin cattle suffer more cold stress and use up whatever fat stores they may have just to keep warm.  As a result, calves may be born weak or cows may not have adequate quality or quantity of colostrum. Calves may then become sick or die, and the cows may not rebreed on time.  A good herd health program, including vaccinations, is essential to assist cattle make it through the winter in good condition.  Parasite loads should be determined, and strategic deworming, as well as delousing should be performed.  Thin, underfed cattle are far more susceptible to the negative effects of worms and lice.  Mature cattle in good rig are very resistant to the normal intestinal parasites.  Thin, underfed cattle are not.

Separating the herd into two or more groups based on nutritional needs is a very effective way to both conserve feed and meet requirements for all life stages.  Mature cattle in good flesh may require only average quality hay. Immature cattle require adequate feed for their own growth, and additional nutrition to account for the growing fetus. These younger animals do not complete with the mature cattle for preferred feeding locations and are usually toward the bottom of the pecking order.  They require good quality hay and extra grain to meet their nutritional requirements.

 

Old and thin cows require good quality hay and extra energy to get them through the winter as well.  They also tend to be on the lowest rung of the hierarchy and cannot complete with well-conditioned mature cattle in good health.  Ideally they would be fed separately from the other two groups.  If it is not possible to split the herd into 3 groups, then put the immature bred replacement heifers and second calf heifers in with the old and thin cows. 

Calves should never be expected to complete with any older animals and should always be fed as a separate group unless still nursing the cow. If calves must run with the main cow herd they should have access to a creep area with better feed including high quality roughage and probably some form of concentrate to balance the ration for  growth.

Strictly grass-fed animals will require careful monitoring to make sure both their protein and energy requirements are met.  Forages need to be very high quality for young stock to ensure adequate gain over the winter.

As parturition nears, the fetus takes up a larger and larger amount of the abdominal cavity, limiting feed intake.  During the last 60 days of pregnancy, reducing roughage by about 15% and increasing grain or pellets by the same amount will aid in meeting nutritional requirements by overcoming the relative decrease in rumen capacity.  Cows in the late stages of pregnancy can easily lose condition if poorer quality roughage is all that is available.

Lactation will increase feed demands and nutritional requirements and it may be necessary to add grain rations.   If it becomes necessary to feed large volumes of grain or pellets as a supplement, split the total amount in two feedings, morning and night.  A 1200 # cow can safely consume 7-8 pounds of grain twice a day with minimal chance of digestive upset when gradually increased to this level. There must be adequate space for all cows to feed, as larger and more aggressive cows will attempt to eat more than their share.  Young 2 and 3 year old cows need extra nutrition for growth as well as reproduction and maintaining body heat.  Whether you breed your cattle to calve at 2 or 3, you still need to be concerned about their added needs.  In particular, young cows that are heavy milkers may loose enough condition nursing a calf that they require substantially more feed. If they go into winter thin, and are not supplemented, they may reach critically low conditions once they start to lactate, and be incapable of rebreeding that year.

Mature cows, particularly if they enter winter in good flesh, can get by on poorer quality feed until they are close to calving.  They can actually lose a little weight during winter with no adverse affects.  However, bear in mind that it is always cheaper and easier to prevent severe weight loss before calving than to try and put that weight back on your cows after calving when their needs are so much higher.

When it is cold or windy, cows require extra feed just to stay warm.  Granted, Highland have all that hair as insulation, but once a critical level is reached, they too require extra feed.  Roughage is very important in cold weather, as giving the cattle adequate levels of forage will keep them warm, since the fermentation and breakdown of cellulose creates heat energy and literally warms cattle from the inside out.  High quality alfalfa hay, while excellent feed, does not provide adequate roughage to utilize this internal heater.  It is high is protein, calcium, and other important nutrients, but it is deficient in energy.  Even for heavy milking cows, a mix of grass and alfalfa is superior to straight alfalfa.

Severe cold weather will cause cattle to consume even more feed (as much as they can) in an attempt to maintain body heat. If fed poor quality hay or straw cattle may eat more than they can digest and actually become impacted.  Chopping the ration may only allow for more to be consumed before impaction occurs.  The addition of small amounts of grain or pellets in severe cold will aid in maintaining body warmth, and not increase fiber content in the rumen to an excessive amount.

Cattle that have a chance to acclimate gradually to winter (are native to the region) will develop a heavy hair coat, with noticeable thickening of the coat occurring as early as late summer in certain areas of the country.  They will also put on body fat if given adequate feed. Both hair and fat are good insulators against the cold.  

Virtually all British breeds of cattle will do fine until temperatures drop below 20-30 degrees F.  It is claimed that Highland cattle will not have to increase feed intake until temperatures drop below 18-20 degrees F.  Based on personal observation, there seems to be strong anecdotal support for this belief.  However, there are some caveats to that claim.

 Highland cattle in good flesh with a dry hair coat are remarkably resistant to wind and cold.  They may not put on as heavy a layer of back fat as other breeds, but they still require adequate flesh covering their internal organs to be comfortable, both as insulation and with internal fat to burn during periods of  increasing nutritional needs.  A heavy Highland hair coat alone is not adequate to keep these animals warm.  Reasonable body condition and adequate feed are a prerequisite for optimal performance.  If the temperature drops to 20 degrees below a cow’s lower critical temperature (the lower limit of the “comfort zone” below which the cow must increase its rate of heat production) she needs 20 percent more digestible nutrients to compensate for the cold.  This equates to either 3-4 pounds of grain or 5-7 pounds of hay (containing 50% total digestible nutrients and based on a 1100-1200#cow).  Increasing cold will increase the cow’s appetite, thus providing her with more feed will allow her to produce more body heat to keep her warm.  Cattle that get chilled decompensate;  heat loss and cold stress reduce her appetite rather than increase it as is the normal for  a non-chilled animal because mammals must maintain minimum body temperatures for normal metabolic processes. This contributes to even greater cold stress and the spiral continues downward.

Wind and moisture both reduce the effective temperature lower than the actual reading on the thermometer.  While we believe that critical temperature is 18 degrees for Highland cows, it will vary based on the body condition. A skinny cow will have a substantially higher critical temperature than a well fleshed animal.   Other  factors such as insulation quality of the hair coat will directly impact the energy requirements. Matted hair or a coat soaked through from prolonged rain will not serve much of an insulating function and further lower the effective temperature for that particular animal.  Windbreaks can help immensely in reducing heat loss for cattle, maintaining the effective temperature at a higher level than without those wind protections.

A good rule of thumb to compensate for cold loss is to increase the amount of feed (that is, the energy source)  by one percent for each two degrees  F of temperature drop below critical levels.  For skinny cows with poor hair coats, or in wet conditions (a wet hair coat) figure twice that amount of increase, or 1 percent increase in energy for each one degree of lower temperature. With severe wind chill and extreme cold conditions, it may be impractical or even impossible to feed a cow enough additional energy to provide her with the calories she needs to keep warm.  Furthermore, if you are attempting to provide that extra energy with a grain ration, you may reach grain levels that are dangerous to the cow’s digestive health. (Excessive grain, particularly acute exposure to large amounts, can prove disastrous and even fatal.) Windbreaks are especially useful, particularly in this type of situation.  They will give more help in maintaining  body temperature without risking serious illness due to overfeeding with grains. 

Hair provides insulation by trapping air close to the skin  and creating a dead air space. The quality and quantity of the hair is dependent on proper nutrition and good health. .  Hair also can be a liability when it gets soaked, and it certainly loses some if not all of its insulating qualities when it is mud caked or matted  Moisture, mud and manure all can cause matting of the hair, destroying the dead space and whatever  insulating value it has.  Practically speaking, you cannot be expected to remove all matted hair during the cold months of the year, but you can certainly be aware of its effect on heat loss, and compensate your cattle with extra feed if they need it.

Bedding down areas where cattle sleep can aid in reducing manure and mud matting, as well as protect their bodies from the cold ground or mud.  Contouring the areas where cattle congregate during the cold months can aid greatly in drainage and minimize mud.  Mounds can be built for cattle lounging; providing slopes for water drainage and can sometimes act as partial windbreaks.  Bulls in particular need to be protected from the frozen ground.  If inadequately bedded, frostbitten testicles can result, leading to temporary or even permanent infertility.

Water is the most critical nutrient for any animal, even in winter.  Life is much easier for cattle that have unlimited access to fresh water.  Water consumption is normally reduced in cold weather anyway, but if water consumption drops too low, it will have a negative effect on feed consumption, and can lead to health problems.  Keeping paths to water free of ice, and mud if possible, will help to promote adequate consumption.  Walking on rough frozen ground is difficult for cattle;  walking on ice may be close to impossible.  It is critical that cattle remain sound in order to maneuver over difficult terrain during cold weather.  Lame animals need to be pulled and aggressively treated, or relocated to an area that is easier for them to navigate.  Substantial weight loss can occur quickly during winter months particularly to animals that either can’t walk to water and feed, or don’t feel safe competing with herd mates if they are in pain and cannot move away quickly.  While cattle will eat snow, this actually lowers the body temperature and causes increased energy consumption to compensate.  Certainly cattle must drink cold water during the winter, but there is usually a substantial difference in temperature between cold water and ice.  Obviously, the warmer the water, the less energy required to raise that liquid up to body temperature.

Be prepared to monitor your cows' condition throughout the winter and make adjustments as necessary.  Observation is the key to good animal husbandry regardless of the breed  Remember to critically evaluate the body condition of your cattle.  Highland hair can hide an emaciated body while looking relatively fit.   If cattle start to loose weight, up the feed quality or amount before it becomes critical. Plow deep snow if access to feed or water become difficult.  Spread dirt or sand as necessary to increase footing.  Highland cattle are not difficult to raise, but they do require a modicum of common sense.  Treat them well and they will do the same for you. 

 

 

 

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