Cattle producers should begin their winterization plan

With the winter months on their way and calving season around the corner, ranchers should begin to think and act on their winterization plan.

Ranchers should begin to think about their winterization plans as the region heads into the winter months. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

As the region begins to head into the winter, and oftentimes unforgiving months, producers and ranchers should begin to winterize their operations and ranches with calving season in mind.

“In the Northern Plains here, we have the joy of dealing with winter, real winter. But when you talk about winterization, it actually begins the year before. It’s important to plan for the winter before it really arrives, because the things you have prepared for have been done some time ago, or should have been prepared some time ago,” said Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist.

A large part of ranchers’ winterization plans should focus on their calves weaning plan. Weaning is a particularly stressful time for calves. However, there are ways to negate those stressors.

“The big thing when preparing for winterization in terms of calf health is how the weaning process looks. What are you going to do when you’re dealing with calves and taking them away from their mothers, and you have taken away that bond? So when you take those calves away, you’re breaking that bond. It puts some stress on the animals, it really does,” Stokka said.

Setting calves up for weaning success


Stokka advises ranchers to feed the calves and cows together.

“If you can, feed cows and calves together. Now the cows teach the calves how to eat. Whatever the diet may be, put them together, have the mothers teach the calves how to eat. Teach them to come to the feed. Bring them together, feed them together, and relieve some of that stress,” Stokka said.

Another component to the weaning process is space ranchers will be moving their cattle to. If at all possible, moving them to a dry pen is optimal. A muddy area that is slippery and full of holes can be an additional added stress to the young calf, according to Stokka. Additional bedding will also bring added warmth and comfort to the animals as well.

If at all possible, keeping the calves close to their mothers’ pens is a good way to alleviate stress. This will ensure the calves and cows can communicate with each other, while still being separated. The comfort of the communication will help with the calves’ overall stress from being separated from their mothers.

In terms of shelter, ranchers and producers should try to have designated areas for their stock to get out of the elements.

“Windbreaks are important and should be placed strategically. All we are asking of those shelters are just to break the wind a little bit. These shelterbelts are a tremendous resource to have; cattle can take a lot, but if they can get out of the wind, it’s a huge benefit to the animal. Some guys use straw bales or hay bales to break the wind, just some form of creativity to block that wind makes a huge difference in the life of the calves and cows,” Stokka said.

While the region has seen a very mild winter thus far, ranchers can expect to see much colder temperatures arrive as calving season approaches.

“It's going to be cold. We’re going to see some snow. Fortunately, at this point it does not look like really large snowfalls like we have seen in some recent years. Make sure your shelter is ready,” said Laura Edwards, South Dakota State climatologist.


Due to the drought many producers saw this year, Edwards warns ranchers and producers to make sure they have enough feeding materials for their herd.

“A lot of folks in the region did experience drought this year, so just making sure you have your feed prepared for your cattle in case something takes a turn for the worst,” Edwards said.

In terms of feeding and nutrition, it is also important to keep in mind that calves will more than likely need a higher protein percentage than cows, calves needing 12-13% protein. Stokka advises meeting with a nutritionist to help set up a winter feeding program for your calves; this way they will get the exact nutrition they need.

Cattle producers should begin to think about winter feeding plan

In addition, it is important that all livestock have access to clean and plentiful water, as being properly hydrated helps calves and cattle retain the body temperature needed to withstand the cold.

A common health issue ranchers see in their calves during the winter months is respiratory disease. A way to combat this health issue is to make a vaccine protocol for your herd and follow it closely.

“The vaccine protocol should be very short and very directed against what you want to prevent. Typically we want to prevent some of these viral infections. We know that these vaccines have been proven to be effective, and we know that they are safe to use,” Stokka said.

Other issues ranchers should look out for in terms of calf health is foot rot and runny eyes.


Taking a final walk through your facilities will also help ranchers see what may need to be fixed or attended to before winter hits. Ultimately, the goal for a winterization plan is to ensure the health and safety of the livestock.

“We, as producers — I am one as well — we have taken on the responsibility of taking care of these cattle. That we are handling these calves in a responsible manner, that we take pride in what we do, that we understand we have a responsibility to the ground that these animals run on. When you talk to ranchers we’re all the same, we’re in this lifestyle because we love the animals,” Stokka said.

Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
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