The Stresses of February
Raising cattle on pasture in Wyoming comes with its stresses. Each time of year has its own benefits and drawbacks, but I would say that some seasons are better than others. Making sure they are happy and healthy is easier in spring when the weather is warm and there is green, growing grass for them to eat. There is something reassuring about having all of the cattle in close to home where they can be easily checked on, but winter can bring challenges.
The past couple of days have reminded me that one challenge can be stress. By this I mean cold stress. Now I realize that different people have their own opinions on cold stress and how animals should be treated, and I'm not trying to get controversial. However, I do want to convey what I have observed and how we handle it here. There are three major pieces to this: the cows, the pastures, and the feed.
First, a little background if you aren't clear on what I mean by cold stress. It's a pretty simple concept: cold is hard on animals. But what is considered cold? And what kind of "stress" does it put on cattle? Is "stress" just a nice way of saying hypothermia? When I am talking about cold for this purpose, I mean below freezing and especially below zero. These cold temperatures can make cows burn extra energy to keep warm and if they can't compensate, they start to lose body condition (the spectrum of thin to obese). So stress doesn't mean hypothermia, that would be an extreme case and we are having big problems at that point.
The best way that I know to deal with this starts with the cows themselves. We don't drive to Texas or Arizona and buy new cows to bring to the frozen pastures of Wyoming each year. We raise Angus that are adapted for the range of temperatures that occur here. These cows would do as poorly in Texas in August as a Texas longhorn would do being brought straight to Wyoming in February. Our cows are here all year, every year, so they know what to expect. As fall comes, they start to grow their winter hair. A good, heavy coat is key to staying warm as the temperature drops. Even a nice, thick coat can't keep all of the cold out.
The pastures where are cows are now have some place where they can hide to get out of the wind. We are fortunate to live where the wind does not always blow like it does in other parts of the state, but sometimes it starts up and cuts right through the best winter coat. For these times, the cows have a patch of trees or a draw to hide in. They can huddle together and wait it out somewhere without as much wind anyway.
This last major piece that I wanted to touch on is nutrition. Cows are warm-blooded mammals like us and they have an average core body temperature of 101 degrees. Unlike us, they have a four-chambered stomach. One of these chambers is filled with microbes that put off some heat as they break down feed. Cattle need energy to maintain body condition. The colder it gets, the more energy it takes. So as temperatures drop to where cattle could start to lose condition, we have to feed them more. It's pretty obvious when you go to feed in the cold that the cows want more. They are hungrier because they know they are burning the extra energy and they aren't scared to tell you about it. As a rancher, it's worth it to throw them some more feed. We are coming up on calving and we want them to be in good shape and to be as healthy as possible.
We have been lucky this year that we haven't had a long cold snap, so far. Temperatures this past week dipped below zero a couple of times, but it wasn't a consistent 30 or 40 below. Both times, the temperature came up above zero for most of the day and for that, I am grateful. Looking forward, I wanted to ask you what you think of the cold. Do you think these cattle can handle it?
by Brandon Greet