Producers nationwide do 'amazing things' to take care of animals in the cold

Areas from North Dakota to Texas experienced sub-freezing — and in many cases sub-zero — temperatures during the cold snap. Many places also saw heavy snow, rain and ice development. That makes taking care of livestock tough.

Cattle are hardy in cold, but to maintain their animals' condition and welfare, ranchers provide extra feed and bedding in cold conditions and have to keep a close eye on water lines. (Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC)

When Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist, reflects on the recent cold snap that cut through the country, he has a one-word answer.

"Wow is the term I would use," he said.

Areas from North Dakota to Texas experienced sub-freezing — and in many cases sub-zero — temperatures during the cold snap. Many places also saw heavy snow, rain and ice development.

In the Northern Plains, "we're pretty well prepared for these sorts of things," Stokka said, noting the bedding, feed, barns, water lines and more that have been prepared or developed specifically with the cold in mind.

"We get through these, because we go through them kind of every year," he said. "What happens in other parts of the country ... they're not as prepared as we are."


That's not to say these things haven't happened before, he pointed out.

"They happen. But our short-term memories don't retain it," he said.

A friend in Mississippi asked Stokka how long cattle can be out of water. The operation has a barn with water lines in the ceiling, which froze from the unusually cold weather. Many places that have experienced freezing water lines and power outages have had to haul water and do other things to make sure animals have enough.

Then, Stokka said, the struggle becomes making sure dehydrated cattle don't drink too much at once, which can lead to brain swelling and other problems.

Feed, too, can be a problem in the South, where livestock graze forages into the winter. Cattle are unable or unwilling to eat through ice-covered grasses. And the cattle themselves lack the thick hide and hair of northern cattle.

"It's been a real struggle for our neighbors to the south," Stokka said.

Even in the north, feed supplies get taxed as maintenance requirements increase. It takes more feed just to maintain body temperatures, meaning feeder cattle don't put on as much weight when the weather is cold.

In the Northern Plains, the long cold streak is hard on people and cattle, but Stokka said at least producers have the necessary tools when a big storm comes. Most of the Northern Plains has avoided large snowstorms, but areas unaccustomed to snow have seen big accumulations.


"Up here, we've got snowplows and four-wheel drives, pickups and loader tractors and we move the snow so we can get things done," he said. "They're really not prepared for that."

Stokka reflected on all the "glitches" in the system that happen in the winter: tractors don't start, hydraulics don't work, waterers freeze. But producers "somehow seem to get through them."

"That's a testament to the people who own livestock and take care of them," he said. "They'll do anything to make sure the lives of the livestock are better, even when it's conditions like this and even to putting themselves in danger sometimes."

No matter where they are, "people will do amazing things to take care of their animals," he said. "They're doing whatever they can, because they feel it's their responsibility to take care of animals no matter what the weather is. And they'll do amazing things and they'll work as long as they have to to make sure these animals are cared for."

As the weather turns, Stokka advises cattle producers to watch feed intake. Cattle will back off on feed when it's cold, even as producers tend to offer more. Offering too much grain as the weather warms up can lead to health problems.

"When the weather starts turning, we've got to be very conscientious in making sure we're not giving the cattle too much feed," he said.

He also advises people to take care of themselves, including making sure they don't get too cold or stay out too long. People in the house should check on those outside.

"There is a human side to this as well that needs attention," Stokka said.

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