Understanding the effects of cold stress on beef cows

 Resize text         Printer-friendly version of this article Printer-friendly version of this article

Most beef producers understand that when the weather gets colder their cows need more energy to maintain their body condition.  The questions are when do cows start experiencing cold stress and then how much more energy do they need?

When we’re considering cold stress, we need to factor in both the actual temperature and the wind speed to determine the effective temperature.  In Table 1 you can see wind speed can dramatically lower the effective temperature the cattle experience.  Any kind of available protection, whether natural or man-made, can be very valuable in reducing the amount of wind chill.

click image to zoom

The second consideration is just exactly when does a cow begin to feel cold stress?  The point of cold stress, or lower critical temperature, depends in large part on the amount of insulation provided by the hair coat.  As shown in Table 2, that insulation value changes depending on the thickness of the haircoat and whether it is dry or wet.

click image to zoom

As a general rule, for every degree that the effective temperature is below the lower critical temperature, the cow’s energy needs increase by 1 percent.  For instance if the effective temperature is 17 degrees F.,  the energy needs of a cow with a dry winter coat are about 15% higher than they would be under more moderate conditions.   That energy requirement jumps up to about 40% higher under those conditions if the hair coat is completely wet or matted down with mud.

One of the ways that the cow responds to cold stress is by increasing voluntary feed intake.  The animal’s entire metabolism system increases in activity.  Also, the passage rate of roughages through the rumen and digestive tract increases.  These changes trigger an increase in the cow’s appetite and voluntary intake.  Some observed changes in intake based on temperature are shown in the Table 3.

click image to zoom

There are some management considerations that we need to keep in mind regarding changes in feed intake in response to cold stress and the cow’s need for more energy.

  • Make sure that water is available.  If water available is restricted, feed intake will be reduced.
  • If the feed availability is limited either by snow cover or access to hay feeders, the cattle may not have the opportunity to eat as much as their appetite would dictate.
  • Be careful providing larger amounts of high concentrate feeds.  Rapid diet changes could cause significant digestive upsets.

It’s important to remember that cattle can adapt to short term weather changes relatively well without a significant impact on performance.  A cow can deal with a few cold, miserable days without suffering long-term effects.  However, ignoring the energy costs of long-term cold stress greatly increases the risk of problems down the road during calving and subsequent re-breeding performance.  Any steps that we can take to lower the cold stress the cows have to contend with, such as providing wind and weather protection, help reduce her maintenance requirements.

Comments (6) Leave a comment 

e-Mail (required)


characters left

Grant Lastiwka, Grazing Specialist    
Olds, Alberta, Canada  |  November, 14, 2012 at 01:07 PM

Well done. I would add BCS also effects ability to tolerate cold stress. Extra body fat cover is significant in aiding in ability to withstand lower critical temperatures (windspeed included in). But also vice versa, in that a skinny cow will be stressed sooner at a lesser temperature. Energetics of cows extending grazing is 10-20% more energy requirements than a feedlot pen. This also should be taken into consideration.

Warren Rusche    
Watertown, SD  |  November, 17, 2012 at 01:49 PM

Grant, thanks for reading and commenting on the article that I wrote. You're correct, body condition does influence the lower critical temperature of the cow and should have been included in the discussion. The influence on cold stress and energy requirements points out the value of putting on body condition after weaning during mid-gestation when her requirements are the lowest. You also pointed out the energy requirements of grazing. I probably didn't address the cow's behavior response to cold stress enough either. Certainly under cold and windy conditions she'll attempt to seek shelter and minimize her activity to save energy, but likely at the expense of grazing time. On the other hand, under sunny conditions, she would likely benefit from solar heat gain, potentially alleviating some of the effects of very cold air temperature conditions. Thank you for your comments. Warren Rusche SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist Warren.Rusche@sdstate.edu

Steve Roth    
NC MT  |  November, 17, 2012 at 08:55 AM

Show this to your seed stock producer when he recommends EPD's for backfat?!

Warren Rusche    
Watertown, SD  |  November, 17, 2012 at 01:53 PM

Steve, thanks for reading the article and for your comment. I think that your comment very effectively points out the concept of an "optimum" level for a number of traits. Fat thickness, especially in maternal lines of cattle is a perfect example. Warren Rusche SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist Warren.Rusche@sdstate.edu

Western Oklahoma  |  November, 20, 2012 at 01:55 PM

What is considered the ideal outside temperature for a pregnant cow with acceptable hair coat for the season. We eperioence considerable wind here so I would base the answer for this quetion on a 10 mph north wind.

Ron Kuck    
Watertown, NY  |  November, 26, 2012 at 09:35 AM

Excellent article with good timing. Our Beef prodcuers discussion group met last Tuesday night to discuss our forage inventories, storage and ways to improve our feed utilization. We have plenty of acres to grow grass hay and pasture for our expanding beef and small ruminant industry but the lack of rain this summer has severely impacted our inventories. Understanding how much hay our animals might go through this winter made for interesting discussion. Enjoy looking through Drovers articles. Ron Kuck, Dairy-Livestock Educator-Cornell Cooperative Extension Jefferson County (NY)


Powerful, strong, fast and comfortable, there’s a reason why the KIOTI Mechron 2200 is called the Ultimate Transport Vehicle™. Featuring ... Read More

View all Products in this segment

View All Buyers Guides

Feedback Form
Leads to Insight