Tips for protecting livestock from harsh winter conditions

Arkansas tends to get a lot of freezing rain, sleet, ice and wintery mix, and these wet, cold conditions are hard on animals if they do not have good feed, clean water and shelter, says David Fernandez, Cooperative Extension Program livestock specialist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Livestock usually do not mind the cold. Their winter coats and the heat produced as they digest their food help keep them warm. Their winter coats are thicker and heavier than their summer coats to trap warm air close to their bodies. This blanket of warm air keeps livestock comfortable even when farmers are chilled, Fernandez said.

When precipitation freezes as it falls or shortly after it hits the ground, animals can get wet through to the skin. The water causes the hair to mat and lose its insulating value. Water conducts heat away from the body many times faster than dry air, Fernandez said.

In the summer when humans sweat, their bodies are cooled by this kind of evaporation. The same thing happens to wet animals as precipitation freezes on their skin.

“In the winter, livestock that become wet through to the skin can suffer from hypothermia and even die,” Fernandez said.

To combat this, Fernandez advises keeping livestock safe and warm by providing shelter from wet weather. Windy weather can also chill animals by blowing away the layer of warm air trapped close to their bodies. Windbreaks provide livestock a place to get out of the wind and stay warm, Fernandez said. Putting wet animals close together in a barn can help keep them warm, Fernandez said. Their body heat warms the air in the barn, and the barn protects them from wind and freezing precipitation.

Animals that are in good body condition have a layer of fat under their skin that helps insulate them. On a scale of one to nine, with one being emaciated and nine obese, cattle should have a body condition score (BCS) of five. Arkansas sheep and goats should have a BCS score of three to 3.5 on a scale of one to five with one being emaciated and five being obese. Thin animals, newborns and very young animals are likely to suffer from the cold and will need more shelter, Fernandez said.

Another way to keep livestock warm is to provide them with low quality hay as the additional fiber generates more heat in the rumen while it is being digested.

“Just be sure to provide enough nutrients with a better quality hay and/or supplement their needs. Do not sacrifice production by under nourishing animals,” he said.

Provide plenty of clean water as it helps animals retain body heat. Animals can become dehydrated when it is cold outside as they tend to drink less water when it is cold. Also, waterers can freeze, preventing livestock from accessing the water.

Thin, wet animals left out in the wind will not provide the best nutrition for their offspring in the spring and will be more likely to suffer from illness and death. Winter time prevention measures go a long way towards increasing profitability next fall. For more information, contact Fernandez at 870-575-7214 or