“Oh, the weather outside is frightful…”, but unfortunately for stockmen and women, the fire won’t be delightful until the jobs on the cattle ranch are taken care of. Colder months will be arriving soon, and here are some steps you can take now to prepare and make those frightful days a little easier. 

Cold weather preparations fall into two categories: cattle, and the ranch. Use these lists to get those jobs done now and make the winter months more efficient, and less challenging.

Preparing your cattle for the winter

Preparing cattle for the winter starts long before the days get shorter. Cattle preparation starts with a solid foundation in health and nutrition. Cattle that are healthy and maintaining a good Body Condition Score (BCS) are ready for the winter months. Here are some specific tips to help prepare your cattle.

Black cow with green ear tags standing in pen
  1. BCS your herd early. Late summer or early fall is the ideal time for BCS, but it is never too late. Set aside some time and BCS your herd, recording their scores for future reference. Cattle with a BCS of 5 or 6 will do better in the winter months. Group cattle with a BCS of 4 separately, and work at increasing their BCS to 5 or 6. Use this guide from Virginia Cooperative Extension to ensure you are accurately assessing BCS.
  2. Add feeders to pastures to supplement fall grazing. Move your feeders periodically to minimize soil damage. If hay is fed on the ground, place it in different locations every day to improve the soil quality with the uneaten hay.
  3. Beware that some forages are toxic to cattle after frost. Sudangrass is one example that must be avoided for a few weeks after the first frost. Know what is in your fields, and do your research to keep your livestock safe.
  4. Do a herd health check. Consult your veterinarian for any fall vaccinations that are required. Winter lice, pneumonia, and hoof rot can be problems in colder weather. Taking the necessary steps now can prevent them from entering your herd.
  5. Minimize or eliminate winter calving in locations where winter temperatures are extreme with herd management techniques. Although it is too late for this winter, you could consider making changes for next year if this fits within your management goals. 

Group of cattle in pens

Preparing your ranch for the cold

The ranch is the other half of the equation in preparing for colder months. Stockmen and women spend long hours on the ranch, and extreme weather can make this work more challenging. By preparing your ranch for cold weather now you can minimize the amount of time you have to spend out in the cold!

  1. Identify windbreaks for your herd or groups of cattle. Make sure sufficient wind protection is available at each location. Fix or add windbreaks and shelters, as necessary, keeping in mind that cattle often prefer wooded areas to shelters for protection.
  2. Identify and prepare winter grazing fields. Cattle can graze through almost a foot of snow, although supplemental feed will also be needed. Check fences in these fields and repair them before the ground freezes!
  3. Test your winter forages. Understanding the nutrient value of forages is imperative, whether you produce your own or purchase forage from another rancher. Work with an animal nutritionist or Cooperative Extension educator to balance the ration for your cattle, and add supplements where needed.
  4. Keep a supply of extra forage in case bad weather strikes and feeding requirements increase.
  5. Create a water plan. Water is an essential nutrient for cattle. What water sources are available in cold months, and are there secondary water sources available? How will freezing temperatures affect access to water by cattle? Each animal will need between seven and twelve gallons per day. Cattle prefer to drink warmer water, and will consume less if it is cold. Consider stock tank heaters or hauling warmer water out to cattle to keep their intake up.
  6. Prepare a winter calving location, if necessary. Winter calving is normal in some geographic areas. Prepare areas for cattle now by adding feeders, checking shelter, and fixing fences.
  7. Prepare a spot in the barn, or a pen dedicated to treatment for cattle that may need medical or nutritional assistance.
  8. Complete fall maintenance on all of your equipment, including chutes, gates, and tractors. Make any necessary repairs now. If you use your chute in the winter, always work the chute, specifically the squeeze, tail gate, and head catch, a few times to warm it up prior to sending cattle in to ensure it is working properly before allowing animals to enter the chute.
  9. Add lighting. Make it easier for you and your employees to get your work done with less daylight hours by adding lighting to key areas, or invest in additional flashlights and headlamps. Replace the batteries on any existing flashlights and headlamps.
Cattle in front of fence

Colder weather is coming, but it doesn’t need to be a frightful experience on your ranch. Preparation now will minimize added work and stress in the coming months for handlers and cattle. 

Did we miss any key steps to preparing your ranch for the winter months? Share your expertise in the comments!

References
Beef in Winter Options and Preparation
Body Condition Scoring Beef Cows
Preparing the Cow Herd for Cold Weather
Some do’s and don’ts when treating cattle in cold weather
Winter Livestock Care Tips