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Outwintering dairy cattle: benefits and cautions

Dennis Johnson

Published in Dairy Star February 19, 2010

Out-wintering continues to increase in popularity. Keeping cows in protected areas or on outdoor packs without a barn has been an effective and low cost housing system. But in a winter like we’ve been experiencing with bitter wind chills, heavy snowfalls, and January rains there can be problems with the system unless contingency plans are in place. Weeks and months of good experience can be undone by a single storm.

There are several obvious benefits to out-wintering. High building costs are avoided, diseases associated with close confinement and poor ventilation are avoided, animals are generally clean, bedding costs are reduced, feeding may be simplified, herd size may be adjusted easily, etc. But a herd manager must be prepared to respond to unexpected conditions quickly. Experience with out-wintering dairy animals from 450 lb through the lactating herd at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) over the last 10 years has been good, acknowledging the winters have been relatively mild during that period.

cows laying in hay

Dairy heifers being out-wintered on a bedded pack protected by a tree line.

Weather. Mud is typically a problem in the fall and again in the spring when frost is coming out of a lot. A well bedded, comfortable pack will minimize the incidence of wet, dirty udders until the mud is 4 to 5 inches deep. At that point, there is little alternative to taking animals out of the lot and moving them across a pasture in daily allocations that enable animals to stay clean and do not cause permanent damage to the turf at any one location. Irish researchers have designed pad lots for wintering in their rainy winter conditions. Cold rainy conditions that reduce the insulation offered by hair are a worse-weather condition. Milking cows will require a pack in cold conditions to provide protection to the udder. The pack should be located in the portion of the lot that has the best wind protection. Frozen teats are not usually a problem if teats are kept clean and dry. Congested udders on fresh heifers are best avoided by managing the calving season to avoid mid December to March when animals are kept on an outdoor pack. A teat dip powder formulated for use during cold weather will also reduce risk of frost bitten teats. Snow creates serious feeding and bedding issues. Feed needs to be located where it is easily accessed for movement and a snow removal plan needs to be developed. Weather that is hazardous for animals also presents dangers for humans. Growing heifers over 400 lb will be clean and comfortable in larger out-wintering areas without bedding as long as they can find a break to protect them from wind chill or blizzard conditions and have learned to find safe sites. At WCROC, we found that about 50% as much bedding is required with a long narrow outdoor pack compared to loose housing under a roof.

Nutrition. Animals outdoors will require about 15 to 20% more feed for the season than animals kept in confinement housing. Pregnant heifers outdoors at WCROC gain about 1.5 lb per day during winter when fed 2.5% of body weight of a corn silage and limited grain-based diet in a TMR. Allocations need to be as much as 3.0% of body weight as dry matter for 450 lb calves. Allocations for animals within the weight range of 450 to 1000 lb are adjusted between 3.00% and 2.5%. Some experienced farmers assert that heifers can meet their water needs by eating snow, but offering fresh water continuously is a best practice. Animals that go into winter thin will have a difficult time regaining condition during cold weather.

Disease. Most out-wintered animals maintain good health. Pneumonia and other respiratory problems are few with vaccinated cattle because unconfined areas are well ventilated. If animals are fed on the ground on clean snow or with hay feeders to keep manure out of the hay, parasite problems should be few. Wet, muddy conditions when feed is contaminated by manure will increase the threat of coccidiosis. Incidence of accidents that lead to lameness or worse will increase with icy raceways, steep-sided bedded packs or deep snow. Cows do not exhibit strong signs of heat when footing is poor.

In summary, the best conditions for out-wintering:

If you wish to consider out-wintering as a practice for managing your dairy animals, visit experienced farms to gain the benefit of their knowledge. Perhaps you will find it is a system that would fit your needs.

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