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Cows In Winter 101 | How To Keep Dairy or Beef Cattle Warm and Happy

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When our formerly suburban family bought a milk cow, the list of questions was a mile long! At the top of that list, “How in the world do we do this in the winter?” Since then we’ve learned a lot by visiting farms, working at farms, and keeping our own cows in winter. We’ll break down the basics of winter cow care for both dairy and beef cattle.

Our Simple Winter Cow Setup

We keep a dairy cow and one or two of her calves on our 5 acre homestead northern Illinois. With little previous experience, we learned a TON along the way. But this small herd has survived the last several winters just fine.

Our setup is nothing special! Cows are hardy animals. Our cows are 100% grass-fed meaning they’re on pasture all growing season and fed hay through the cold months. 

This video shows more of our winter cow setup. 

Even when eating hay in winter, the cows are outside in a fenced paddock. Our stall inside our pole barn is only reserved for the coldest stretches, or when they are wet and need a place to dry off.

With the right food, water, and shelter, keeping your cows warm and happy all winter long is 100% doable!

How cold can cows tolerate?

Cows are happiest in weather between 40-60°F. They will generally hold up fine with temps reaching down to 18-20°F. Below that range, cows can start to experience the stresses of their cold environment and require additional care and management. If their needs are met, cows can handle temperatures down to zero or below.

Cows are warm blooded animals and keep a core body temperature around 101°F. Cows maintaining that body temperature will appear calm. If your cow exhibits behaviors like mooing excessively, they devour food aggressively and rapidly, or their milk supply or body weight is dropping, they might be in a stressed state from the cold.

cows in winter covered in snow

The biggest winter threat is when a cows coat of fur becomes wet followed by freezing temps. We’ll talk more about shelters below, but some access to a dry space without wind is a necessity. Without it, cows might not be able to dry off and bring their body temperatures back up on their own.

This is especially true with newborn or young calves. If a newborn calf is born in temperatures below 32°F, they will likely need to be brought into a barn or shelter to dry off and keep warm. Young calves should also be monitored closely and given access to dry shelter during their first few months. They aren’t able to moderate their core temps as well as an adult cow. 

That said, cows are built for the cold and capable of maintaining their own body temperatures to keep warm.

How do cows stay warm in the winter?

Cows have three ways to keep warm in winter: growing winter hair, thick and fatty skin, and through proper food intake.

jersey milk cow in winter time

Growing Winter Hair

In the cool fall months, cows start to grow a thicker and longer coat of fur. Their winter coat makes an excellent outer layer to help trap internal heat while shedding wind and other elements. But, as mentioned above, this coat is not impermeable and can be dangerous when wet. We like to keep close watch of the weather and make adjustments as needed. For instance, if a sleet or rain is coming followed by rapidly dropping temperatures, this might be a time where we’d preemptively open up barn access for them.

Thick and Fatty Skin

A cow can also prepare for winter by bulking up. Cows are naturally thick skinned which helps keep cold out and heat in. But you may also notice their desire to prepare for the winter months by increasing their food intake and storing up extra fat under their skin. This will improve their body condition and add yet another layer or protection from the cold.

Proper Food Intake

Cows are ruminants, meaning their stomachs are designed to digest and internally ferment grasses and other plants. Both of these processes – digestion and fermentation – naturally produce heat. This allows cows to heat themselves from the inside out if given enough food, which we’ll talk more about.

cow being milked by hand in the winter

Dairy Cows in Winter vs. Beef Cows in Winter

Dairy cows and beef cows don’t differ all that much. But because they’re bred for different functions, the cold does affect them in different ways.

Dairy Cows

Dairy cows are not only expending energy to keep themselves warm, but also to continue producing milk in the winter months. You might say they are pulling double duty. Some studies have shown a dairy cow will consume as much as 50% more during the winter months.

We have found it helpful to monitor our cows milk supply during the winter months to know if they are lacking anything in their diet and staying warm enough. A drop in supply may indicate they are expending the bulk of their energy to keep warm, therefore putting less energy toward milk production. Usually this tells us they need more food, minerals, or access to shelter.

milking a cow on a snowy winter day

The udder and teats of dairy cows are particularly vulnerable during the winter months. If exposed to too much cold or wind, their teats especially will become chapped and crack. This causes a lot of discomfort and can make them rather agitated while milking.

When we experience wounds on teats from the cold with our milk cow we know it’s time to offer her more barn access to get her out of the wind. With applying some healing salve or balm to the wounds, being gentle during milking, and giving her a dry, wind-free shelter, she’ll typically heal up within a couple days. 

Beef Cows

Beef cattle will also have increased intake needs during the winter months. Though, typically, less so than a dairy cow who is also producing milk. A beef cows food consumption will go up around 20-25% during the winter months.

Beef cows are also generally hardier than a dairy cow because of their larger frame and build. This allows them to keep their body temps up more easily in frigid temps with less needs and inputs.

What do cows eat in the winter?

Knowing that a cow will consume anywhere from 20-50% more food during the winter, what then do you feed them?

Often, their diet looks similar to what it does the rest of the year. A cow typically on pasture will most likely transition to a diet of hay. Hay is a mixture of pasture grasses and plants that have been cut, cured, and preserved for consumption past the growing season.

cows eating hay on 5 acre homestead

Cows can also be fed grains, or a combination of grains and hay. When hay or grains are in short supply, other supplements can be corn stalks, wheat straw, or soybean hulls. Alfalfa pellets or other protein supplements are also an option if their hay or feed is low in protein.

We feed our cows a high quality source of hay through the winter and have found that to be substantial for them. 

Water and minerals for cows in the winter

Having constant access to a clean and unfrozen water supply for your cows is an absolute must!

There are two common options. The most common is to add a submersible or floating heater to a stock tank. We have a submersible heater with a 100 gallon stock tank that we currently use a backup but has worked great when in use. The downfall of this setup is needing to run buckets of water out to fill it if you don’t have a frost-proof hydrant right next to it.

The second option is an automatic waterer that utilizes geo-thermal heat and/or a heater to stay unfrozen through the winter. There are many different manufactures or automatic waterers, but we use a Jug – check out our full Jug Waterer Review. We absolutely love it and it is a lifesaver, especially in the winter months!

heated automatic jug waterer in winter

Salt and minerals are another big nutritional need that arrises every winter. Their need for minerals especially seems to spike when the cold sets in. So make sure you have a fresh supply of salt and minerals available to them.

We buy a salt block and mineral block that they have access to all year. Even if they have an older salt or mineral block, we’ve found it important to refresh their supply heading into winter. The blocks have a tendency to get worn out, even if they still look new, during the summer months. One trick is to split a block in half with a hatchet to give them access to the fresh salt or minerals in the center.

salt and mineral blocks for cows

Do cows need shelter in the winter?

The short answer is, “yes.” But not necessarily all the time. We have found that cows prefer to be outside when they can and so we try to reserve access to our barn shelter for only when weather conditions turn extreme. That said, if you have a suitable barn setup, you can certainly give them as much access to it as you’d like.

Observation is your greatest tool when it comes to allowing your cows to have or not have access to a barn or other shelter. During the winter months, we keep close watch on the weather and the cows themselves to know when it’s time to open up the barn for access.

family milk cow in front of barn

The other day the thermometer showed -2°F so we opened up the barn for our milk cow overnight. The next morning she greeted us outside for her morning milking, so we just milked her outside!

Winter cattle shelter requirements

Typically, a shelter with at least 3 sides and a roof is a minimum requirement for proper protection from wind and precipitation. Within the shelter, you’ll want to make sure the floor stays dry with proper bedding like straw.

A stall inside a barn is ideal as a winter cattle shelter. Barns have a roof and can typically be closed up tight to keep out drafts and maintain heat. A simple lean-to structure is also commonly used with a roof overhead and at least three solid walls for sides.

When in a pinch, a more basic approach might be to setup t-posts or fence posts and fasten pallets or plywood to them to make a wind barrier. Trees or bushes can also help provide a wind barrier or shelter for animals in the winter months.

Where do cows sleep in the winter?

On still winter nights, cows will most likely choose to sleep beneath the stars like they would  the rest of the year. On windy nights you’ll find them huddled up close to a windbreak to block the chilly wind. Or on wet nights they’ll likely seek out shelter and dry bedding to keep warm and dry.

As we’ve found out with our milk cow, they’ll often lay right in a warm pile of poop to keep warm! Cows just tend to be a little messier in the wintertime. So, if you have a milk cow especially, you may need to plan for a little extra time to clean them off.

Winter Cows Can Be Happy Cows!

So, yes, there’s some extra things to think through and monitor in the winter. But your cows will be fine and dandy if you make sure their basic needs of food, water, and shelter are being met. 

You don’t need pristine barns or an elaborate winter setup. Cows know how to keep themselves warm and stay happy and healthy all winter long!

Your management and care will play a vital role in that! Keep close watch on them. And keep close watch on the weather. Learn what helps them thrive over time and make adjustments quickly when you notice something is off.

family milk cow next to a big red barn

What about you? What patterns have you noticed in your cows in the wintertime or what have you found most helpful to let them survive and thrive through the cold winter months? We’d love to hear in the comments!

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To learn more about a family milk cow or keeping cows on your homestead, check out:

Owning a Family Milk Cow Basics
Simple Cow Milking Process For Beginners
How Many Cows Per Acre On A Small Farm
What To Know About Rotational Grazing On A Small Scale
Calf Sharing – How to Add Flexibility to Your Homestead
Breaking Down The Cost Of A Family Milk Cow

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