State fair cow

It’s that time of year again, the time of year all livestock farmers dread – winter. Winter can be a challenge when it comes to maintaining the health of our livestock herds.

Just like with humans, changes in the outside temperature lead to respiratory challenges so always being on the lookout for those issues is a must regardless of them being inside or out. The good news is cattle and other livestock generally have the right winter coat for cold weather, but when Old Man Winter starts to mix wind and dampness into the equation along with frozen ground, livestock start looking for a dry area to lie down in.

So what management steps can we take to keep our livestock happy, healthy and productive through these dreaded winter months?

If housing and feeding any livestock indoors we need to be sure that there is adequate ventilation to keep air moisture, odor and nitrogen levels low, while maintaining as constant a temperature as possible.

The goal of bringing livestock indoors is usually to protect them from the elements they will encounter outside, so we need to make sure that by bringing them indoors we don’t end up just exposing them to different harmful elements. There are certainly many benefits to housing and feeding livestock indoors but there are also a few drawbacks as well.

The one drawback directly related to keeping odor and nitrogen levels low is the necessity to remove the buildup of manure from the area. This costs extra time and equipment hours for producers.

If housing and feeding outdoors, similarly it is important to keep the buildup of manure due to congregation around feeders at a minimum as well.

A couple of things to keep in mind when choosing areas to feed: if you move feeders around throughout the winter try to find a spot that is not in a low lying area of your pasture; also try to move feeders to a new area more quickly before muck gets too deep. This is critical for newborn animals to prevent broken legs from being stepped on or trampled by larger stock, and to help control scours.

When it comes down to literally feeding livestock during winter months producers will need to feed more hay or forage so that the animals built-in heat source, the rumen, can actually do its job and help keep the animal warm. Not only will the livestock need to eat more but they will also need to consume more water as well to aid in digestion of a larger volume of forages.

Water is just as important in winter months as it is in summer months. Don’t forget to check water sources regularly to be assured that they are not frozen over and there is flow to maintain freshness.

Livestock producers or prospective producers can find out more information pertaining to this article by contacting Kendra Fortner at the Jackson County Cooperative Extension Office at 586-4009 or the Swain County Cooperative Extension Office at 488-3848 or by email at

Kendra Fortner is the N.C. Cooperative Extension livestock agent for Jackson and Swain counties.