The impact of cold weather on your livestock isn’t to be underestimated. So far this July we have already seen several strong cold fronts sweep across southern and eastern Australia. These fronts have been accompanied by strong winds, snow and sleet and then days of intense frosts.
These events have a big impact on your livestock. The demand to stay warm requires extra energy. At present the intense drought conditions mean many livestock are low in body condition and surviving on minimal rations. The combination of low body reserves and reduced energy intake means your stock is less able to cope with the cold, and at greater risk of dying.
How does cold affect your cattle?
We often assume cattle can cope with cold conditions more easily than other species like sheep. However, cattle can be just as impacted by the cold as any other species. As a warm-blooded animal, cattle have a normal temperature of 380C. Under most circumstances cattle can cope with some temperature fluctuations without needing to expend too much extra energy. As the season changes they grow thicker coats, and in periods of cold weather they change their grazing patterns to find shelter.
However this behaviour can only go so far. If temperatures fall to what is known as the ‘lower critical temperature” your cattle will start to be cold stressed. To cope they start to require more energy to stay warm. And in this situation they need to have more energy in their diets.
Some research by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture in Canada identified the differing levels of lower critical temperature, depending on cattle coat thickness. These levels do vary depending on coat thickness.
Lower Critical Temperature
Summer coat or wet coat
Heavy winter coat
These temperatures don’t take into account the impact of wind speed. Wind has the biggest impact on the lower critical temperature. This can be seen below
Looking at the table, if the wind was only 8km /hour on a 40c Day, the actual air temperature is really 10C.
This is close to the Lower Critical Level for cattle with a dry winter coat. But a wet coat after rain means your animals are at real risk of cold stress.
Cold and wet conditions have a massive impact on sheep programs. At greatest risk are lambs that are often unable to cope with the impact of cold weather. Rain and moisture significantly increases the risk of mortality. As with cattle, sheep manage to cope to some degree with cold by changing behaviour and seeking shelter. They also have a fleece that will offer some protection.
However its important not to overestimate how effective a fleece may be. The table below highlights the Lower Critical Temperatures of Sheep
Lower Critical Temperature (ºC)
5-mm fleece (fixed)
As with cattle, when wind speed increases, the impact on Lower Critical Temperature is much greater. And for lambs with no fleece and a large surface area and low body mass, their energy loss is very high.
Managing the Risk
In practical terms it's impossible to avoid cold fronts. However we can manage for them. The options that are available to help your stock cope with cold conditions include:
- Increasing rations ahead of the cold front: Hay is a very good option to increase a ration. It is more slowly digested and the process of digestion helps stock stay warmer as well as getting more energy. However it’s no good just offering a bit! You need to increase your rations by 10 – 20%. If your stock are light in condition or slick coated cattle I’d definitely be increasing to 20% ahead of and during the cold period.
- Provide shelter. Breaking the wind speed up can have a dramatic effect on improving conditions for your stock. Moving them to sheltered paddocks that have trees and shrubs that break up the wind will be vital. There are plenty of well proven strategies and studies that show the role shelter has in livestock survival
- Longer term, consider developing shelterbelts and wind breaks to moderate the wind across the farm. You certainly can’t grow shelter over night, so in the short term consider what other options you have to shelter your stock.
Cold fronts often only last for a few days, and with adequate warning you can prepare your stock to cope with the challenge. It is important to make your plans happen when the fronts are forecast. Don’t leave it to the day of the windy and snow to start doing something. Often moving stock in those conditions makes it worse not better! Pre preparation is everything to give your stock a chance!
How do you cope with cold weather? Some people seem to cope better with cold weather. After working in the New England region of NSW for many years, I don't mind the cold too much. I find that I can always put on some extra clothes, find a pair of gloves and even resort to a fleece lined hat for those cold bleak days! And on the days when it is too cold, wet or miserable to be outside, there are always things to do inside to stay out of the cold.
However, for your livestock, the cold is an entirely different matter. Livestock are impacted by cold weather, and if cold conditions are accompanied by some rain and wind, the impacts can be fatal.
Many people think sheep are the animals that are the most susceptible to the impact of cold. However cattle can be just as susceptible.
Several years ago I was told by a producer about an experience where some cattle were imported from a station in north Queensland to the New England. These cattle were brahmans just older than weaner age. The day after they arrived a snow event occurred and sadly some animals couldn't cope and died.
So cold conditions, wet weather, wind can all combine to have devastating impacts on your animals. And unlike the northern hemisphere, bringing animals inside is not really possible in Australia.
Can livestock cope with cold weather? The answer is they certainly can. The process of rumination does help them cope, as the rumination process releases plenty of heat that helps the animal stay a bit warmer. The other things that help animals cope are the condition that the animals are in. Livestock in average or better fat scores will cope more easily than lean or low fat scored animals.
Animals that are at risk are those that are in low condition. Young animals and older wake animals are also at risk, as are lactating animals or sheep fresh off shears.
So how can you help your animals cope with the cold? There are a few things you can do. These include:
- Provide hay for your livestock. Hay is slower to digest, which means the rumen will produce more heat as digestion occurs. This is especially important when the paddock feed is limited.
- Put animals in sheltered paddocks. If you have ever been in a paddock sheltered by some trees you will know the difference in temperature, particularly getting out of the wind. Grazing your stock in sheltered paddocks, with timber or protections that can reduce the wind chill will make a big difference to your animals.
- Avoid importing livestock from environments that not as cold! Livestock need some time to adjust to a new environment. They may not eat the new pastures, may be unhappy after transport and may have had time to explore their new home in time to find the sheltered paddocks or places in the paddock. Being hungry, cold and stressed places these animals at risk, and if they are young, weak or light in condition, the cold is a real threat.
- Draft your herd into fat scores. Its always good management to draft your herd so that you have them in similar weights and fat scores. The low conditioned animals, and the lighter ones need to be given particular care at the best of times, but during cold, this care is particularly important. These are the animals that should have first option for shelter and definitely need your attention.
Fortunately the cold weather in Australia doesn't last for too long. Snow is an occasion and doesn't bury pastures for months on end. The big risks are the cold windy days as cold fronts sweep up from the Antarctic. I reckon we are also fortunate in knowing when these events are on the way, so there is time to plan ahead. I reckon if cold is an issue for your stock, you need to think if you can help them cope more easily with hay and shelter. And if you are thinking of purchasing or moving a few animals onto your place, I reckon if you can consider the traditional impact on cold and determine if it is the best time for your region and for your animals to do that movement.
If you're happy with all that, and you've helped your animals cope as well as they can, I reckon you've earned some time inside by the fire!
How familiar are you with your obligations to ensure animals are transported safely and appropriately? Its an interesting questions to ask producers or livestock agents. Sometimes the response I get to that question is a blank look or even a comment that its up to the truckie! In actual fact, anyone responsible for the care and management of livestock has an obligation to know the current standards and adhere to them.
Its called the chain of obligation, and it starts with the owner of the animal and ends with the final receiver of the livestock. Anyone along the way, be it the agent, truck driver, staff at the sale yard, feedlot, depot or processor is included in the chain. So its important you make yourself familiar with the current national standards.
The current Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for the Land Transport of Livestock are the basis for a national consistent framework regarding standards and responsibilities associated with ensuring welfare of animals is maintained.
The national standards and guidelines cover alpacas; buffalo; camels, cattle, deer, emu, goats, horses, poultry, pigs, ostriches and sheep.
There are general guidelines that apply to all animals. Having read through these standards, I reckon they provide a logical progression for anyone who will be responsible for transporting animals.
The general standards include recommendations for:
Responsibilities & planning
Stock Handling competency
Transport vehicles and facilities for livestock
Pre transport selection of livestock
Loading, transporting and unloading livestock
Each of these points addresses important considerations for every person who is responsible for the animal.
This includes questions such as; are the animals fit to load? There are useful pointers for the suppliers of animals selecting animals and assembling them for transport as well as identifying the responsibilities for sac section of the chain of responsibility.
As well as these general standards, the document addresses the specific requirements for transporting animals of each species. These standards cover important issues such as loading densities; transportation of pregnant animals; suitability of vehicles for different species and tim of feed or water.
Transporting animals is something that everyone involved in agriculture will have to do at some stage to other.
Having the national standards in place means we re all working to the same standard and working to consistently achieve the best welfare standards for our animals.
I reckon its definitely essential you download a copy of the standard and become familiar with its standards and recommendations.
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