Most years Louisiana cattlemen are blessed with warm weather and abundant rainfall. Cattle can usually winter there, especially in the southern parishes, without much help. But last year was a different story, says Christine Navarre, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, Louisiana State University. Louisiana experienced a record rainfall and very cold temperatures for a prolonged time. “There was some flooding and serious mud problems which burns up an animal’s energy,” Navarre explains. “There was no dry place to lie down and cattle were slogging around to get to feed and water.”

In some flooded areas a few producers had cattle stranded without food for about 10 days. “Most could get cattle to high ground, but the flooding caused native winter grasses and planted ryegrass either to fail to come up or they were very delayed coming up,” explains Navarre. “Even in non-flooded areas, ryegrass grazing was delayed due to cold, which caught many producers unprepared with an alternative.”

She notes that summer drought and increased demand also made hay scarce. “Producers in some cases failed to realize the increased need for nutrients. They were supplementing, but not with enough protein and
energy. We normally get by with native grasses, ryegrass, hay and protein supplement. This year, we needed more protein than usual and I think energy was also deficient.”

Louisiana didn’t suffer through unusual winter weather alone. In Nebraska, winter started unusually early with a wet fall and many areas had snow cover in October. “Because of this some corn was not harvested until this spring,” says David Smith, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVPM (Epidemiology), School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “In December, there were two blizzards and one major winter storm, and across the state there was meaningful persistent snow cover that prevented grazing, followed by a January and February that remained cold,” he adds. “Spring was relatively mild, but there was exceptional mud in some areas of the state.”

Many Nebraska cattle producers that count on grazing corn stalks were unable to turn cattle out, or the cattle were unable to forage stalks or winter range because of snow cover. “In some cases it was a blessing that the cattle weren’t turned out yet because they ended up being closer to home during and after blizzards,” Smith notes.  “During and after blizzards roads were impassible for weeks in some areas. This made feed delivery difficult or impossible.” As a result, many cattlemen used up most of their available stored forages early in the winter because typical winter grazing sources (grass or cornstalks) were covered in snow. “Some producers were prepared to supplement feeds, but others were surprised by how quickly cows lost condition with the severe cold, wind and later wet muddy weather.”

Over 1,400 miles to the east of Nebraska, the state of Virginia experienced one of the worst and longest winters in decades. Over 20 inches of early snow December 18th marked the beginning of snow-covered ground that, except for eight days, lasted until March 15th, says Thach Winslow, DVM, Virginia Department of Agriculture. “Cold weather, winter winds and continued snows presented prolonged conditions and challenges for producers across the state, especially those west of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Winslow says.

The prolonged snow cover had an immediate and direct effect on cattle nutrition. “Stockpiled forage was inaccessible through the snow  resulting in an earlier need for winter feeding in these boundaries, as well as an increase in daily feeding requirements due to lack of browsing,” Winslow explains. Extremely colder than normal temperatures and deep drifting snow increased energy demands on cattle significantly. Many farmers were caught by the early snow with cattle in boundaries long distances from their winter feed resources. Even when hay was available, access to it was difficult or limited. 

In many cases, deep drifting snow made feeding cattle a challenge despite feed being there and available. Many cattle were moved into closer smaller boundaries to facilitate feeding and calving. “These smaller closer boundaries commonly lacked natural shelter, resulting in increased energy demands, hypothermia, and calf losses,” Winslow adds. “Normal nutrition plans were inadequate and decreased body condition was not uncommon. Those producers already using silage and supplement for winter feed were far more prepared than those who didn’t, and their cows wintered well.”

Health effects of winter weather

Cattle are meant to withstand winter weather, but like all animals, can suffer health effects when the winter weather is extreme or prolonged. Smith, Navarre and Winslow saw much of the same problems with cows losing body condition prior to and during calving, and had issues with protein-energy malnutrition. Navarre’s Louisiana producers saw winter tetany, calf stillbirths, weakness and illness. “I saw precipitous drops in body condition, even in some cows that were what I would consider adequately supplemented in a normal year, and fall-calving cows that were lactating were very vulnerable,” she says. Parasites such as Ostertagia and liver flukes also had a field day in cows with poor nutrition. 

 Even well-fed herds had exposure issues during calving, and some cows and even more calves were lost, Winslow says. “There was a typical failure to thrive syndrome common in calves born to poor body condition cow,” he adds. “Neonatal diseases such as scours and pneumonia accompanied this.”

Navarre says downers were generally caused by winter tetany or protein energy malnutrition. Winter tetany occurs when cattle are fed poor quality forages alone or in combination with the wrong supplement. High levels of potassium (found in molasses, some forages) and phosphorous when coupled with low levels of magnesium and calcium cause imbalances in calcium and magnesium. “Cattle become downers and rarely get up, even when treated,” Navarre says. “Protein energy malnutrition (pregnancy toxemia) occurs in cattle that are underfed protein and/or energy. This condition is exacerbated by internal parasites and cold weather, which increase nutritional requirements. It generally occurs during late gestation in cattle in poor body condition, and heifers are particularly susceptible. Cattle look normal one day and down and unable to rise the next, especially after a cold spell. Once animals go down, treatment is usually unsuccessful.”

Sudden death from hypothermia also occurs in cattle in poor body condition from underfeeding. During cold weather, especially if accompanied by rain and wind, thin cattle can die very quickly. “It’s typical for cattle to look ‘normal’ one day, and then several are found dead the next morning,” Navarre explains. “What looks to be a poisoning is really just several cattle giving up during the night. Brahman influenced cattle suffer the most, but it can happen to any breed.”

Smith says gains were also poor in feedlots because of severe winter weather and later the muddy conditions. “Mud is a costly environmental condition for all classes of cattle,” he says.

Problems carry into spring

Severe, extended weather issues can carry forward for months after the storms are gone. Navarre’s producers mostly calve January through March, so calving was occurring during bad conditions, and calf health problems continued after the weather warmed up and grass greened up.

Navarre adds that not maintaining cow body condition scores through the winter in late gestation cows is also very costly. “It affects production for at least the next three years, maybe longer.” Thin cows are expected to have some fertility issues this spring and summer due to poor nutrition and stress, and there may be more open cows at fall pregnancy check than normal.  “I anticipate more breeding problems because of low body condition,” Smith states. “Much of this will depend on whether cows can gain condition on good grass in late spring and early summer.”

Theoretically, this calf crop will have long term decreased immunity, Winslow says. “This will show itself especially in the fall and at weaning.”

Preparing for next year

We can’t control the weather, but we can prepare better for the same type of winter as last year. In Nebraska, Smith says stored feeds need to be replenished, so hopefully this will be a good year for hay production. “As always, we recommend forage analysis so that supplementation needs can be anticipated,” he says.

“Hopefully cow-calf producers can take advantage of typically low summer prices for distiller’s grains which is an excellent supplement for cows in late gestation.” He also recommends body condition scoring in early fall to help cattlemen make more informed decisions on what to anticipate for winter nutrition needs.

Smith adds that veterinarians can be a great help to producers as evaluators of body condition scores in the fall and as advisors on winter forage and supplement needs.

Navarre agrees that testing hay, calculating supplementation needs and planning supplementation will be important, as well as having a plan for what to supplement and how much. Mineral supplementation also needs attention, she says. “We need to make sure the timing of deworming, especially for flukes, is better. We had herds that had dewormed for flukes, but earlier than recommended, and they had serious fluke problems later when the cows got thin.” 

Each producer faced their own set of challenges last winter in Virginia, Winslow says. Learning from these and applying a solution that works for them is important. For some this means changing their entire nutrition program, others are shifting from cow-calf to stockers, and some are selling out or selling down. Others yet are shifting to a later calving season. “Improved calving boundaries that offer natural protection to the elements and better access are being considered by some,” he says. “Being sure to store feeds where they will be fed instead of where they are harvested is another solution. Four wheel drive tractors, chains, and snow fence are others.”

Lessons learned

Winslow notes that some producers have learned and made some good management decisions, many others, however, have not, or at least think there is nothing else they can practically do given their situation. “The expense of making capital improvements especially on leased farms for a winter that only comes once in 20 or more years is not moneywise,” he notes. “In some cases they might be right, however there are some minor management considerations that could prove rewarding.”

“Winter is never easy in Nebraska. Producers know they have to be prepared for some hard times,” Smith says. “That means we usually have the equipment and experience to deal with periods of bad weather. Unfortunately, winter was unusually persistent this year. But in spite of devastating weather conditions and severe restrictions on travel, some producers were prepared and they’ve done okay. Other producers were caught off-guard or lacked the resources to respond.” Cattle in those herds have had a tougher time this spring.

“It takes a severe winter once in a while to remind us that we need to be planning now for whatever Mother Nature throws at us next winter,” Smith says.

Welfare and winter conditions

Winter weather conditions can wreak havoc on cattle health and post-winter fertility and production parameters. With the increased scrutiny on livestock production, how cattle are dealt with during these times may also be looked at under the welfare magnifying glass. Unfortunately, more frequent allegations of neglect/abuse/animal cruelty against cattle producers across the country have followed the severe winter that just occurred, says Christine Navarre, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM. 

Veterinarians know as well as anyone that even if you do everything right, health issues can still arise, Navarre says. “Everyone needs to get informed. Producers need to learn how much protein it takes to maintain a cow in late gestation and learn how to body condition score. A cow with a large round belly from eating poor quality hay is not necessarily in good body condition. Learn how the industry is evolving and what current industry standards are for things such as low-stress handling, early castration and dehorning.”

She says veterinarians, county agents, nutritionists, and/or consultants that regularly work with client can bear witness that they are following accepted animal husbandry practices. “Have documented production and sales records, health records, protocols for euthanasia and handling downer cattle, etc.,” she says.  

Regardless of winter conditions, beef producers need to be aware of the tradeoffs that can occur between welfare and profitability, says Thach Winslow, DVM. Traditionally it has been accepted that well-being and productivity go hand in hand.  Nevertheless, there are situations where they don’t. “Our industry cannot afford to be recognized as one that ‘can pencil in a better profit by accepting a higher death loss on cheaper high risk calves’ or that ‘can sustain the losses from an occasional hard winter more affordably than making the investments to prevent them’,” Winslow says. 

“Producers have a responsibility of good stewardship to their livestock, and consumers demand humane production practices,” he adds. “Continued education by veterinarians, Extension, and industry leaders is important for the reputation, confidence, and success of the industry.”

Each individual who owns or cares for livestock needs to get informed, Navarre states. “Let’s consider this past winter a wakeup call. Let’s get it right next time.”