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How Cold Is Too Cold For Cattle?

University of Minnesota Extension, Stearns County News
December 20, 2017        
Source:  Emily Wilmes, Extension Educator-Livestock
University of Minnesota Extension
Stearns, Benton & Morrison Counties

How Cold Is Too Cold For Cattle?
By Emily Wilmes, University of Minnesota Extension

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (12/20/2017) — We can officially say that it’s winter in Minnesota.  You hear pretty often that, “cattle do better in colder temperatures” but have you ever wondered what that actually means?  When is it “too cold” for cattle?  What effects does cold stress have?  How can I manage cold stress? 

Let’s start with my first question: What does “cattle do better in colder temperatures” mean?  Research has shown time and again that the range at which a cow feels most comfortable is broad; anywhere between 25 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit is comfortable.  At 25 degrees, we are usually wearing winter coats along with gloves and hats.  A thick winter haircoat, rumen, and average body temperature around 101 degrees makes cattle more comfortable in cool weather.

Onto the next question: When is it “too cold” for cattle?  Based on the previous answer I gave you, the answer should be 25 degrees.  However, that’s not the full story.  Are you more comfortable when it is 50 degrees and you’re wearing a t-shirt or when it is 50 degrees and you have a sweatshirt on?  Similarly, cattle can remain comfortable at lower temperatures with thicker hair coats.  For example, in wet conditions with a summer coat, the lower critical temperature is 59 degrees--so this is when the cattle would start to feel cold stress.  With a dry fall coat, the lower critical temperature is 45 degrees.  With a dry winter coat, cold stress starts at around 32 degrees.  Lastly, with a dry, heavy winter coat, cattle’s lower critical temperature is 18 degrees.  With good body condition, a good coat, and dry conditions, cattle can stay comfortable to fairly low temperatures.

My next question is “what effects does cold stress have on cattle?”  Under cold stress, cattle need to increase their metabolic rate to create more body heat--simply put, they need to use more energy for warmth, taking energy away from other functions, like lactation.  The major effect of cold stress is increased dietary requirements.

This leads to the final question: “how can I manage cold stress?”  The elements, especially wind and rain or snow, are what make cattle uncomfortable.  Providing them with shelter from the elements is one way to help combat cold stress.  A wind break is one simple solution, providing a roof overhead is ideal.  The other major management tip for cold stress is focusing on nutrition.  Cold stress increases maintenance energy requirements but does not impact protein, mineral or vitamin requirements. The general rule of thumb is to increase the energy density of the ration by 1% for each degree below the lower critical temperature. One of the ways that cattle respond to cold stress is by increasing voluntary feed intake. To support this, make sure there is enough fresh water and feed available, and make any diet changes incrementally. 

Managing cold stress effectively will keep your cattle warm and comfortable all winter long.


Emily Wilmes
Extension Educator, Ag Production Systems - Livestock
(320) 255-6169
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