Living through a winter in Northern New York, especially one as cold as this one has been so far, often leads people to wonder if the cattle they see outside are uncomfortable and if they should be inside a barn. In most cases, the answer is no.
Cows that are used to being outside generally prefer to be outside and will be healthy in cold temperatures as long as they are given adequate care, including good quality feed, water, and a dry location with shelter from the wind.
In general, most cows actually prefer cool temperatures over warm temperatures. Cows have an average body temperature of 101.5 F. They are ruminants and partially digest feed through fermentation in the rumen, which produces heat. Therefore, cows are usually the most comfortable at temperatures between 40-60F.
In the fall, when temperatures begin to drop, cows who are used to being outside will begin to adapt by growing a thicker hair coat and depositing a layer of subcutaneous fat. This, combined with a layer of thick skin serves to insulate the body as temperatures drop. As winter arrives and it snows, the thicker, longer hair will stand up and catch the snow. This forms a layer which creates an air pocket that is warmed by body heat and further works to keep the animal warm.
It is for this reason that it is important that cows that are kept outside, remain as clean and dry as possible so the hair can maintain its insulating abilities. Cows that are muddy or covered in manure will have trouble staying warm. It is essential that they have a dry, clean place, out of the wind to stand and lie down in especially when the temperature drops below zero.
As temperatures become lower, cows will further adjust by increasing the amount of feed they consume. For this reason, adequate nutrition is extremely important for the animals to stay warm. The lower the temperature, the more feed cows will need due to the demand of an increased metabolic rate. Faster heart rate, respiration, and blood flow require more energy which in turn creates heat to keep the body warm. Cows that are given proper feed and access to unfrozen water will consume what is needed to stay healthy and comfortable during cold spells.
Jessica Prosper is the Agriculture Community Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County. If you would like more information or have questions about caring for livestock outside in the winter, you can email Jessica at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (518)483-7403.