As cold weather approaches dairy farmers across the country will find themselves challenged with the task of providing their cows with adequate food and shelter.
It can be a challenging task for some farmers especially if they don’t plan ahead or have the necessary resources in place. In order to address cows in all their cold weather needs it is helpful to have a basic understanding on how their metabolic systems work.
Dairy cows naturally endure colder weather but when the air temperature falls below a certain point their metabolic rates begin to increase in order to maintain core body temperature. As their metabolic rates increase, cows require more energy and added warmth, which can only be provided through additional food intake and adequate shelter. Without these two things it is not possible to maintain a dairy herd’s milk production from what it was during the warmer months.
When it comes to nutrition, most farmers find themselves using a lot of feed and hay to get their cows through the winter — a rather costly expense.
As an extension professor and dairy specialist at the University of New Hampshire John C. Porter can attest to the fact that winter feed can be expensive and the price has been steadily increasing over the years due to the various input costs associated with the production of these crops. Porter points out that corn and hay yields and their subsequent prices are heavily tied to unpredictable and fluctuating weather. What all this means for farmers is that they must find the best ways to manage the feed they have so that they get most out of their money.
According to Porter, one way dairy farmers can save money on hay and feed is by reducing the amount of waste that occurs during feeding. He recommends the use of hay feeders or feed bunks because they help to properly dispense forages while reducing waste.
Studies conducted by various agricultural universities around the country have shown that design and shape play a key role in the amount of waste that occurs. For example, a recent Michigan State University study showed that ring and cone shaped feeders were the most efficient while cradle type feeders were least efficient.
The study goes on to explain that solid skirting at the bottom end of a feeder lowers the amount of waste that occurs. With open feeders more waste takes place because cows are able to push hay out onto the ground where it ends up getting trampled or contaminated with manure.
Another feeder design feature that helps to reduce waste is slanted manger bars. These slanted bar designs encourage cows to keep their heads in the feeder opening because they provide some constraint and force cows to rotate their heads when entering or leaving the feeder.
Partitions in feeders are also helpful in reducing waste. When there are no partitions cows tend to jostle over the same portion of hay. Often times this causes them to pull back on the hay and toss it over their back or along their side where it goes to waste.
A feed bunk is an entirely different feeding device but one that is just as useful in keeping cows from trampling their meals. The various agricultural equipment companies that sell them point out that feed bunks are designed with efficiency and convenience in mind.
One of the best of examples of convenience is when feed bunks come with skids or tow bars. This feature allows them to be easily transported to different locations around the farm facility. Efficiency comes into play when feed bunks are placed in open areas, which allows cows to crowd around and feed from both sides. They can also be installed outside of cow pen fence lines where they are easier to fill with food and clean up during harsh weather conditions such as snow and ice.
Wind is a cold weather factor that places additional stress on cows and further increases their energy requirements. Cold wind passing over a cow draws heat away from it much more quickly than still air at the same temperature. That same wind has an even greater effect on cows that are wet or muddy because it reduces the insulation offered by their hides.
Porter says if farmers don’t want to pay for more feed in order to compensate for their cows’ additional energy requirements they will need to find ways to keep their animals warm. Bringing cows into enclosed shelters is one option but according to Porter it is only beneficial if the shelter is properly constructed to livestock. Buildings that are sealed too tightly can result in a buildup of respiration gases and animal odors, which can irritate an animal’s lungs and cause fatal diseases like pneumonia. According to Porter, livestock shelters should either be open, with provisions for natural ventilation, or enclosed, using fans and proper air inlets around the ceiling perimeter to provide ventilation.
Stanley Fultz, a retired Dairy Science Extension Agent with University of Maryland Extension, agrees with Porter and adds it is not always necessary to herd cows into an enclosed shelter during cold weather. According to Fultz, cows will naturally seek windbreaks during the winter and will utilize anything from brush piles to low spots in the pasture to lessen the effects of wind.
Fultz says farmers can help their livestock by providing natural or man-made windbreaks to further obstruct, reduce or redirect wind flow. An example of a simple man-made windbreak that any dairy farmer can put together in a short amount of time involves stacking together large hay or straw bales. Fultz points out that since this type of windbreak is an edible food source for cows it is necessary to place hay stacks outside any fence or pen area so that the cows can’t get at them.
Natural windbreaks can be created by planting evergreen and deciduous trees in rows at appropriate locations to block prevailing winter winds. Fultz says farmers who are starting off with plantings may want to consider getting the advice or service of tree care professionals in order to secure additional future benefits from the trees such as shade for livestock in the summer or habitat for wildlife all year round.
Food and shelter are two of the most basic yet crucial challenges associated with cold weather but if they are addressed properly farmers will find that their dairy herds will continue to prosper over the winter.