It was recently brought to my attention that every winter, well-meaning but uninformed citizens raise concerns about beef cattle that are raised outdoors.

Most of these concerns have no merit. However, as a caretaker of animals, you need to understand what affects the comfort of your cattle and address deficiencies, if they exist.

In summary, beef cattle are able to withstand cold stress because:

 • Rumen fermentation of forage produces body heat.

• There is increased insulation provided by body fat, thick skin and heavy hair coat.

• Their large body size can hold heat.

• Cattle naturally seek natural windbreaks and shelter.

• Cattle will stand and huddle, which conserves heat

Photo by Erika Kenner, Leeds, ND

Here is something I wrote in 2014 that goes more in-depth on this issue:

The last two months have been unseasonably cold and snowy.

During these harsh conditions, questions are raised about whether beef cattle should be housed in a barn. This is a logical question given that the predominant form of animal agriculture in our area is dairy and most dairy cows are housed indoors.

However, the beef cow is endowed with unique characteristics that allow her to deal with and adapt to challenging weather conditions.

Beef cows are housed outdoors because it is healthier and reduces the cost of labor and bedding.

All mammals maintain a constant body temperature; a condition known as thermoneutrality.

Thermoneutrality is achieved through the production and release of heat. The production of heat is a function of tissue metabolism, but more importantly in cattle, it is a function of the fermentation of forage in the rumen.

In fact, the production of heat is determined primarily by feed intake; the more she eats, the more heat she produces.

Energy is required for maintenance of bodily functions such as achieving thermoneutrality.

There are several factors that affect the maintenance requirement in cattle. Most germane to this discussion is that dairy cattle require 20 percent more energy to maintain thermoneutrality and other tissue functions than beef breeds.

Dairy cows require more energy to stay warm because they have less insulation, thinner hide and less hair, along with the energy cost associated with producing large volumes of milk.

A final concept to understand is the upper and lower critical temperature. This is the temperature at which the maintenance requirement changes due to environmental conditions.

The beef cow is most comfortable when the air temperature is between 30 and 80 degrees, and is considered the lower and upper critical temperature. However, certain environmental conditions can alter these values:

• Wind speed — Depending on the velocity, the maintenance requirement of cows with no wind protection increases 15 to 30 percent.

• Coat condition — Hair is the primary external source of insulation. If the hair coat is wet or matted, its ability to insulate is greatly reduced, which increases the lower critical temperature. For example, a dry heavy winter coat provides adequate insulation down to 18 degrees, but if the hair coat is wet and matted, at 59 degrees the cattle need additional energy to meet maintenance requirements.

As a general rule, the energy requirement of wet cattle increases 2 percent for every degree less than 59 degrees.

Therefore, “cold stress” could be defined as the point where temperature, wind speed and coat condition causes the cow to drop below her lower critical temperature.

Fortunately, the combination of cattle biology and behavior along with management intervention can minimize the effects of cold stress.

• Cattle acclimatization — This is the adaptive changes in response to changes in the climatic conditions, and includes behavioral as well as physiological changes.

Behavioral changes include finding natural or man-made windbreaks, huddling in groups or changing posture to minimize heat loss.

Physiological adaptations include changes in metabolism, respiration rate, distribution of blood flow, feed and water consumption, rate of passage of feed through the digestive tract, hair coat, and body composition.

As stated previously, there is also a genetic component to combatting cold stress. Dairy cattle suffer more than beef. Hereford cattle are more cold tolerant than many other beef breeds.

• Nutrition — As a general rule, for every degree the actual temperature is below the lower critical temperature, the cow’s energy needs to increase by 1 percent.

For example, a 1,400-pound dry brood cow in good condition with a dry hair coat will consume about 35 pounds of dry hay per day.

With no wind, when the temperature drops from 30 degrees to zero degrees, she will need to eat 46 pounds of dry hay to maintain her weight. In response to cold, changes in behavior and physiology will cause her appetite to increase and therefore eat more feed, perhaps as much as 30 percent more.

For cows with 24-hour access to good quality hay, they will adjust their intakes to reflect climatic conditions.

For those on a restricted intake and/or poor quality hay, adjustments in quantity and quality will need to be made to accommodate the lower critical temperature.

The reality is that a cow can only increase her intake by no more than 30 percent, therefore better quality hay or energy supplements such as corn silage, corn grain or distiller’s grain will need to be provided to meet nutrient requirements.

• Protein — Protein requirements will not increase due to cold stress. However, by feeding additional hay to meet energy requirements, protein intake will naturally increase.

• Water — Water consumption decreases during cold weather. Limiting water intake due to frozen waterers, creeks or ponds will decrease feed intake. Also, following a cold stress event, water intake may increase 50 to 100 percent,

Monitor the weather. Cows can withstand one or two days below the lower critical temperature, but for longer periods, changes in nutrition and management need to be implemented.

Protect animals from the wind. Windbreaks can be natural or manmade.

Bed cows well. Place old hay bales, corn stalks and other sources of bedding in natural windbreak areas.

Also, provide additional feed, which may include grain. If wet feeds are fed, make sure they are not frozen.

Provide ample, fresh, clean water, too.

So, do beef cows need to be housed in a barn? When properly managed and fed, beef cows do not need a barn to combat the effects of exceptionally cold winters.

Source: Michael J. Baker, PAS, PhD, Beef Cattle Extension Specialist, Cornell University