Winter care

With the onset of winter comes additional care of livestock.  A few of the key pieces to care of livestock in the wintertime is access to fresh water, dry bedding, ample feed, and shelter.

For any livestock that is kept outdoors or in a barn where indoor temperatures follow the outdoor temperatures, winter is a time of need for extra energy.  The need for extra energy is due to the fact that extra calories are required to maintain body temperature in the cold environment.

Each species of livestock has a unique thermoneutral zone.  A thermoneutral zone is the range of temperatures where the animal does not need to expend energy heating or cooling itself.  When temperatures go below this range, we get cold stress.  With cold stress comes behaviors like shivering that help maintain or increase body temperature, but requires extra energy to do so.

Species Lower limit Upper limit
Horses 40 °F 70-85 °F*
Cattle 40 °F 70 °F
Pigs 55 °F 75 °F
Goats 55 °F 75 °F
Sheep 54 °F 88 °F**
Poultry 60 °F 75 °F

Thermoneutral zones of different livestock species.  Temperatures listed are for adult animals.  Young animals will be less tolerant of cold compared to adults.  Research has shown variations of species thermoneutral zones based on environmental factors.

*Horse thermoneutral ranges vary depending on adaptation to the local environment.
**Sheep thermoneutral ranges are highly variable depending on the length of fleece which provides insulation from the environment for the animal.

Making sure that animals have access to water that isn’t in a frozen state is important for the well-being of the animals.  In addition, having adequate access to water maintains intake of feed, keeping the animal either maintaining weight or growing if the animal is young.  Some animals may learn how to eat snow to access water, but this should not be relied on as the primary source of water

Dry bedding is also an important part of winter animal care, especially for animals that are housed in buildings that aren’t temperature-controlled or in outdoor facilities.   Animals that are wet in cold temperatures have less capacity to maintain their body temperature due to evaporative cooling.  Evaporative cooling is the evaporation of moisture near the animal’s skin to the surrounding environment which ultimately cools the skin.  This is the same mechanism that cools animals that sweat in the summer heat.  Shelter from the elements helps animals maintain their body temperature in winter.  This is especially important in times of wet periods followed by extremely cold freezing temperatures.

Beyond the lower limits of the thermoneutral zone, livestock will require extra energy to keep warm.  For some, this means a more calorie-dense feed.  For other farms, this may mean providing extra feed beyond the summer requirements.  Additional calories might be provided by adding more fat or molasses to a ration.  For species that utilize forage, hay at a higher relative feed value provides more easily digestible nutrients and can allow for increased consumption of feed.

The University of Wisconsin-Extension provides research-based information to help citizens of Wisconsin make informed decisions based on science.  UW-Extension extends the boundaries of the university to the boundaries of the state, helping the people of Wisconsin and beyond access university resources and engage in learning, wherever they live or work.


Note: This article originally was published in the Marquette County Tribune, Waushara Argus, and/or the Berlin Journal.  This article was written by Lyssa Seefeldt, UW-Extension Agriculture Agent for Marquette County unless otherwise noted.