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Winter cow care in Wisconsin

Winter has arrived to Wisconsin, bringing snow and wind chills well below zero in its first few days. The dreaded ‘polar vortex’ thankfully only lasted a few days, but winter animal care is an activity Wisconsin farmers plan for and implement all winter long. No matter the weather, the road conditions, or the holiday, farmers will be out in the elements, taking care of their animals.

While Wisconsin faces frigid temperatures, our climate is relatively ideal for cows. I recently learned that it is a good sign to find cows with snow on their backs. This means that their body is so insulated that their body heat has not melted the snow. Additionally, when cows are lactating, they naturally produce excess amounts of heat, making the barn comfortable at lower temperatures. The ideal temperature for a dairy cow is between 40-50 degrees. When the temperature drops below that mark, farmers step in to make necessary adjustments to their facilities, feed, and daily routines.

Typically, the first thing that farmers will alter on their farms are their facilities. Most cattle barns have curtains along the walls that allow for cooling breezes and ventilation during the warmer months, but keep warm air in and drafts to a minimum during the colder months. Adding extra bedding will also help insulate animals from the ground.

Another method to help cows during the cold is to adjust their feed rations. Formulating feed rations for cattle based on those cold temperatures can ensure additional energy is available for the cows to use. These feed rations are monitored throughout the winter and analyzed by a herd’s nutritionist. Automatic heated waterers in barns are also checked daily to ensure cows have plenty of access to water, as cows, on average, drink a bathtub a day! When the cold sets in, young calves can be especially vulnerable, so extra measures are taken to keep them safe and warm. Caretakers will increase the amount and number of feedings to these young animals each day to ensure enough energy for warmth and growth. This could mean upwards of three to four feedings a day during the coldest parts of the winter.

Farmers also provide dry, deep bedding for calves to bed in and may even outfit calves with custom jackets that provide extra warmth. Some farms even have ear muffs to help reduce the risk of frostbite! Timing of calving can also help protect the herd. On our beef farm, our cows primarily give birth in the spring after frigid temperatures have passed. This timing also allows the new calves to mature enough before they experience the following winter. Wisconsin’s farmers work tirelessly year round to provide the best possible environment for their cows and will be working even harder during these months to keep cattle comfortable and producing wholesome products. The next time you enjoy beef or dairy, make sure to thank our hardworking farmers who face the frigid Wisconsin weather to care for the cows that provide our communities with delicious products.

Taylor Schaefer is Wisconsin's 75th Alice in Dairyland


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