“Everyone knows when it’s time to come in from the cold!”  That’s what I would have said until this past week when I heard that a neighbour had suffered frostbite while skiing in temperatures below -29 degrees Celsius or -20.2 Fahrenheit. The exceptionally low temperatures have proven to be a challenge.  At Huntsdale, we were six days and five nights without electricity after an ice storm tore through Ontario the week before Christmas. Thanks to the generator our small operation was able to cope, although we had to make dramatic adjustments to keep warm and some Christmas celebrations were put on hold.  As recently as this morning, we were carefully monitoring barn pipes as Round Two of this un-commonly cold winter tried to deliver another knock-out punch.


Although our human situation never reached the critical stage, it did emphasize for us that managing shelter is the number one priority when cold strikes. This is especially true for cattle. With our thoughts focused on the cattle in our plus seventy-five year old barn, I rapidly found myself reviewing a checklist to make sure we were providing the best housing management for our animals.  Here is what I found.

  1. Both outside hutches and barn stables must have steady air exchange and provide protection from wind and drafts.
  2. Prolonged exposure to air contamination can be a dangerous side effect of battening down the hatches during a storm. Now the usual dust, manure, pathogens and gases such as ammonia can build up and have a negative effect on the respiration.
  3. For calves less than a month old, calf blankets are absolutely necessary at these extreme temperatures as an added protection from drafts.
  4. Because wetness exacerbates the effect of the cold, bedding must be clean and dry to reduce heat loss. Increased humidity and the resulting wet hair also decrease animal’s ability to maintain a healthy body temperature.
  5. Be constantly aware of wind chill.  Try to keep animals that are outdoors protected from exposure to strong winds, either through natural topography such as a valley or tree windbreak or by building either permanent or portable wind fences.
  6. If you do not have time to build windbreaks, it is possible to achieve an improved protective effect by using stacked bales, snow piles or even parked farm equipment.
  7. As we discovered, it is never too soon to make sure that you have the required fuel to generate emergency backup equipment.  Christmas Eve is a difficult time to count on the goodwill of your diesel fuel supplier. (Not mentioning any names but we are blessed by great service suppliers!)


Personal experience proves that being cold is energy draining.  The fewer calories we have to burn the more we feel the effects of cold.  From chills to shivering to poor nervous responses, we start into an endless cycle of decline. People prefer warm comfort food when challenged by weather conditions and the same is true for cattle.  Documented research confirms that calf growth can be negatively affected when young animals receive inadequate nutrition during cold snaps. As temperatures decrease there is a corresponding increase in diet requirements simply to maintain a calf`s needs for basic health and growth. Here are six relatively easy ways to increase caloric energy for calves are:

  1. More frequent feedings (3x) will benefit calves up to a month of age.
  2. Increased starter gives energy to generate body warmth.  Calves need assistance to eat grain.
  3. Higher milk or milk replacer amounts will be needed.
  4. Increased fat intakes are needed by animals whose systems must fight falling temperatures.
  5. Warming the milk replacer or whole milk to 105 degrees means that the calf doesn`t have to expend energy to bring the milk up to body temperature after ingestion.
  6. Offering warm drinking water two to three times a day encourages feed consumption and further assists in counteracting the effects of cold stress.


When cows’ ability to regulate their body temperature is challenged by extreme cold, it affects both milk production and rate of growth. Severe cases could result in illness or even death. Here are five tips to help your hard working animals meet the challenges of extreme cold.

  1. As with calves, warm water to drink can assist by not forcing the cow`s body to bring it up to her normal body temperature. Keep in mind that snow is not an alternative to water.  This also means that caretakers have the added challenge of keeping water thawed. A lactating cow needs to drink at least 15 gallons of water a day and a heifer needs at least 5 gallons.
  2. Provide extra access to feed. If animals eat more often, they will have the calories to meet the higher energy requirements needed for keeping warm.
  3. Feeding mid afternoon could help by putting the cow in a ruminating stage – where she is thus generating heat— during those evening hours, when temperatures are most likely dropping.
  4. Keep cows from fighting the cold unnecessarily. Provide clean dry bedding.  Whether it’s straw, hay, woodchips, shavings or sand, a good depth of dry material provides protection against cold weather and weather related injuries, such as frostbitten teats, cold extremities
  5. High producing cows need a dense diet when challenged by the weather.  Less filler and more high quality forage and grains will keep the milk pail full.


While the previous points can be effective in overcoming the downside of extreme weather, there are two more that cannot be ignored in our top 20 list of responses to extreme weather.

  1. Take care of your own weather needs. Dress warmly.  Eat well.  If your immune system fails, you will not be available to guard the well-being of your herd.
  2. Be safe.  Extreme weather can provide those one-of-a-kind situations that quickly become dangerous.  Southern Ontario will take a long time to clean up from the masses of fallen trees and limbs and phone and electrical wires that are strewn up and down road sides and around most houses, sheds and barns. Although we want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, speed kills when recklessly applied while operating chainsaws, large removal equipment and as one volunteer put it, “you have to be sure that you’re not about to meet up with ‘live’ wires!”  


The day will come when we look back on the winter of 2014 and remember that wind chills neared -60 degrees Fahrenheit in Chicago and temperatures in some parts of Canada “colder than Mars”. It’s only January and it’s not yet time to become nostalgic about this winter’s challenges. We must continue to mount a focused response.  Know your cows.  Know the effects of wind chill, ice, snow and power outages.  It will take cow sense and common sense to survive the UN-common cold of 2014!


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