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    Winter Feeding | Winter 2011 Out Here Magazine

    As temperatures dip, your livestock needs more fuel

    cattle
    Your livestock will provide clues if your winter feeding is insufficient: cattle, sheep, and goats eat any available brush; horses chew fences; and they all clean up every blade of hay.
    Out Here

    By Heather Smith Thomas

    Photography by iStock

    Each winter, animals grow a longer, thicker hair coat to insulate themselves, keeping body heat in and cold out. To create more body warmth in freezing temperatures, they need more "fuel," which means more feed.

    Cold weather increases appetite because every animal needs more calories to produce body heat. The extra feed should be provided in a way best used by the animal.

    Horses can generate the needed body heat by digesting extra protein such as a little alfalfa hay — heat is a by-product of this breakdown — or a little grain.

    Ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats do better if they're fed extra roughage, such as grass hay or straw. During fiber breakdown in the rumen — when hay and other feed is softened in the first stomach chamber before being regurgitated as a cud — heat and energy are created. That's why it's a good idea to feed cattle more grass hay or straw, rather than more legume hay during cold weather, because they contain a higher fiber content.

    As temperatures decrease, the amount fed to each animal should increase. You'll know you're not feeding enough by the clues your livestock provide: Horses start chewing the fences; cattle, sheep, and goats will eat any available brush; and the animals clean up every blade of hay.

    As a general rule, when animals start to get cold, it takes about 1 percent more feed for every degree of cold. That means if it's 30 degrees below a certain animal's critical temperature/comfort zone, you should be feeding 30 percent more feed.

    CRITICAL TEMPERATURE

    As a general rule, when animals start to get cold, it takes about 1 percent more feed for every degree of cold. That means if it's 30 degrees below a certain animal's critical temperature/comfort zone, you should be feeding 30 percent more feed.

    Every animal has its own "critical" temperature below which more feed is needed to create adequate body heat. How low that temperature might be depends on the species, body condition — fat insulation under the skin — and hair coat. Cattle, for example, start to get cold at about 50 degrees when they have their summer hair. As they grow more insulating hair for winter, however, their critical temperature can drop to 20 degrees or even lower. Moist weather — rain, sleet, or snow — or wind can alter that critical temperature.

    Excessive moisture flattens the hair coat, causing it to lose its insulating ability. Once the hair is so wet it no longer sheds water, the animal becomes chilled if the skin gets wet.

    So when the temperature is 10 degrees on a winter day, and they have a full hair coat, cows may not need any protection from the weather and don't need much extra food. But when the wind blows, the wind chill can take the effective temperature much lower — and cattle need windbreaks and more food.

    Always take the wind chill effect into consideration when feeding your animals in winter.

    Some of the coldest days for them are when the temperature may be higher but it's wet or windy. A 32-degree day with rain and wind is more stressful on livestock than 5 below zero on a calm, sunny day.

    When you are snug and warm in your house and checking the outdoor thermometer by the window, don't be lulled into thinking your animals are okay if the temperature is above freezing. If it's windy or wet, they need more feed.

    To play it safe, just figure on supplying all the forage they will eat during cold winter months, and then they can generate the body heat they need.

    Heather Smith Thomas has authored several books on livestock care.

     

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