While cattle can endure colder outdoor temperatures than humans can, winter bedding is ideal for desirable feed efficiency and growth performance.
Understanding the average core temperature of cattle and the thermoneutral zone can help producers make winter bedding decisions. The thermoneutral zone is a range of outdoor temperatures that cattle can endure without changing their core body temperature. When air temperatures are below the thermoneutral zone, heat loss from cattle occurs, decreasing cattle’s core body temperature. In order to keep a consistent core temperature, cattle must then metabolize body fat stores or redirect energy from feed consumed, costing the producer in additional feed costs and/or reduced feed efficiency.
The average core temperature of mature cattle is 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit while their thermoneutral zone ranges from 32 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. A clean, dry, open winter coat on healthy, mature cattle traps air that acts as insulation. This additional insulation allows cattle’s thermoneutral zone to drop to 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Younger animals, such as calves and heifers, have a higher thermoneutral zone as these animals typically have less fat content on their bodies. The lower limit on a calf’s thermoneutral zone can be as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Any time temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, additional bedding, feed, and/or calf jackets should be provided.
Air and real-feel temperatures are rarely the same during Wisconsin winters. A 10-mph wind can cause an air-temperature of 18 degrees Fahrenheit to feel like 6 degrees Fahrenheit, even to healthy, mature cattle with clean, dry hair coats.
In a North Dakota State University study, researchers concluded that providing modest wheat straw bedding, defined as enough bedding so animals did not have to lay on snow or frozen manure, to finishing steers increased average daily gain, gain to feed ratio, finishing weight, hot carcass weight, dressing percentage, marbling score, and ribeye area compared to finishing steers with no bedding. An additional group of finishing steers were provided with twice as much straw bedding per day, compared to modest bedded finishing steers. Both of those finishing steer groups performed similar.
Wisconsin snow cover can range from 65 to 140+ days depending on the year and region. Snow cover is not the only thing to consider when providing bedding. Cold, wet, and muddy conditions that occur in the fall and spring increase the amount of bedding needed. Depending on individual farm management and facilities, it may be necessary to plan for 180 days of confinement bedding needs for beef cows and 180+ days of confinement bedding for feedlot cattle. One rule of thumb is to plan for roughly 5 pounds of bedding per head per day; however, that can vary depending on weather, pen management, and stocking density.
Adverse growing conditions have not only led to winter feed shortages, but also winter bedding shortages. While corn stalks are the common winter bedding choice in Wisconsin, equal amounts of small grain straw can be used. Additional winter bedding options include sand, shredded paper, or sawdust. Each alternative has their pros and cons – producers should use the option that works best for them that provides a dry, warm environment for cattle.
The next time you head out to the barn on a winter day, check your current winter bedding. Providing adequate winter bedding can increase economic return in cattle.
- L. Anderson, R. J. Wiederholt, and J. P. Schoonmaker. 2006. Effects of Bedding Feedlot Cattle During the Winter on Performance, Carcass Quality, and Nutrients in Manure. Carrington Research Extension Center Beef Report.
Written by Dr. Megan Nelson, Livestock Outreach Program Manager, UW-Division of Extension, reviewed by Bill Halfman; Agricultural Agent , UW-Division of Extension. Article recently appeared in Wisconsin Agriculturist Magazine.