winter cow care

Think Ahead When Working Cattle In Cold Weather

Here are some tips – for both humans and animals – on working cattle in cold weather.

Whether you’re preg-checking, vaccinating or weaning, the inclement weather of late fall and winter can compound the normal challenges of processing cattle.

Russ Daly, DVM, South Dakota State University Extension, says cows are typically less affected by the cold than calves, or even the folks working the cattle. Still, it’s wise to use low-stress handling to minimize excitement or exertion in the cattle. 

“Cattle handle cold weather better than hot weather when working them, but you still don’t want to run them around too much,” Daly says. In processing cattle, such stresses as putting them through the chute, vaccinating, and (for calves born in the fall) possibly castrating and dehorning, are additive. 

“If they’ve also been stressed by weather [recent blizzard, severe cold, wind, etc.] or will be stressed by weather afterward, handling them may be too much stress,” Daly explains. You may want to postpone the working day until better weather. Cold, calm weather is less stressful than windy, wet weather.

“You don’t want cattle or the crew to exert, as both may chill when standing around.” Charles Stoltenow, NDSU

“Check weather patterns,” suggests Charles Stoltenow, North Dakota State University professor and Extension assistant director. “We don’t want to be working cattle if there’s a huge cold front coming. Even if you’ve scheduled a certain day with the veterinarian and the neighbors helping, you might want to reschedule if weather will be really bad. It might be harder on the cattle to work them in inclement weather (and if you are using a pour-on product, it may not be effective if animals are wet), and it will definitely be hard on the people!”

Stoltenow adds that it’s important to take your time working cattle in cold weather, just as in hot weather. “You don’t want cattle or the crew to exert, as both may chill when standing around,” he says.

Minimizing worker frustration is also important, so Daly advises pre-checking all facilities. That includes all chutes and their moving parts, and ensuring working alleys and crowd tubs are in good repair, and that gates aren’t frozen down or immobile in a snow drift.

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Shannon Williams, Lemhi County Extension educator in Salmon, ID, recommends a walk-through the day before. This allows plenty of time to shovel snow or chop any ice that might prevent gates from swinging properly.

“Be sure any walkways and working areas are safe and as ice-free as possible so people won’t get hurt. In winter, we’re all bundled up and not as agile,” Williams says.

John Hall, University of Idaho Extension beef specialist, stresses attention to footing for cattle, and working them more slowly if conditions are icy.

“Some of your equipment may be cold or frozen, and it doesn’t work as readily as in summer. With hydraulic chutes, for instance, we turn the hydraulic pump on at least 30-60 minutes before we put cattle through, to warm up the hydraulic fluid. If the fluid is cold and thick, chute speed really slows down, and your timing is off when catching heads,” he explains.

A non-slip surface where cattle exit the chute also is important, he says. Packed snow or ice, or a slick concrete apron at the chute exit, can lead to cattle spills. 

When installing a chute for all-weather use, Colorado State University’s Temple Grandin recommends grooving the concrete apron extensively with a diamond tread pattern. “We’ve gotten along really well with that groove design on our chutes,” the professor and facilities designer says. 

Hall adds that, if the concrete becomes snow-covered, it should be shoveled off; if it’s icy, apply salt or sand to the surface — anything to add traction to the icy surface.

“There are woven recycled-tire mats you can put ahead of the chute. Tires provide a rough surface for better traction, and the mats are woven in a way that creates pockets between the straps, so cows can get a toehold as they exit the chute. The mats are expensive, but can be moved around where needed to cover a slick spot,” Hall says.

Product handling

Maintaining animal health products at the required temperature is imperative, Daly says. “Keep vaccines at refrigerator temperature while working with them,” Daly stresses. Freezing will inactivate modified-live vaccines, while allowing adjuvants in killed vaccines to freeze can create compounds that will sicken cattle.

“This may require hot packs in the bottom of a cooler, so nothing freezes. When working cattle in cold weather, I put hot water bottles in the bottom of a Styrofoam cooler with some holes in the cooler’s top to stick pistol-grip syringes in during non-use. This keeps needles from freezing and the syringe contents thawed, without getting them too warm,” he says.

Williams has experimented with temperatures and vaccine in coolers to see how long the cooler would keep vaccine from freezing. “Make sure you have a good cooler with excellent insulating qualities. I recommend the hard Styrofoam coolers used for shipping vaccine, or a regular hard-sided cooler. Soft-sided coolers don’t hold the temperature where you need it long enough,” Williams says.

If you know it will be cold when working cattle, bring the cooler indoors the night before, she suggests. “One way to quickly heat a cooler — if you didn’t bring it indoors — is to fill it with boiling water and then dump the water out. Or warm a rice-filled heating pad in a microwave oven and put that in the cooler for a while to warm the inside,” she says. This will ensure that the vaccine and syringes in the cooler won’t freeze for the next few hours.

If its 36° F outside, vaccine and syringes will be fine in a cooler without additional heat, because that’s the lower end of the desired window for vaccine temperature, she points out.

“In my studies with coolers, I found that at 29°, a pint of hot water in a good cooler will keep vaccine within proper temperature range for 4.5 hours. If it’s 13° outside, you only have about three hours before the pint cools too much and it gets too cold inside the cooler. You might need the cooler inside your pickup with the heater running,” Williams says. Wind chill makes a difference, too.

A cold, sunny day without wind is less problematic than a sunless windy day. “Place coolers out of the wind and in the sun if possible. You can also put a cap on the needle and the syringe under your coat, or in an inside pocket of your coveralls or vest to take advantage of body heat,” she adds.

Never put vaccines on the pickup’s heater or defroster, as they may get too warm; it’s a fine line trying to keep it within the proper window of temperature.

“The easiest way to tell if you are within that window is to put a refrigerator thermometer in your cooler.” If it starts to drop below optimum temperature, add a new jar of warm water or a warm rice bag in the cooler.

“If you use two coolers, use one for your syringes and the bottles you’re filling from, and the other for unopened bottles so that it will retain proper temperature longer. If you have holes cut in the top, to stick your syringes in [so the barrel and needle won’t freeze — with just the handles sticking out], you can have the second cooler for storing the unopened bottles,” Williams says.

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It’s common to place coolers on tailgates near the working chute, but metal tailgates conduct cold on a cold day. “It helps to place an old saddle pad or two on the tailgate as insulation from the metal. If it’s bitterly cold or windy, set the cooler in the cab of the pickup,” she says.

Frozen bottles are worthless, and vaccine that’s too cold in syringes is also ineffective. Even if the vaccine doesn’t freeze, the needle may freeze up and prevent vaccine flow. If you have a bottle of warm water in your cooler, you can stick a frozen needle into the warm water to thaw it. The syringe contents may still be fine because there’s more volume and it didn’t chill as quickly, but the small amount in the needle may freeze.

“Sticking a frozen needle into warm water occasionally won’t contaminate the needle any more than sticking it into the cow — and we generally use the same needle on multiple cows before changing to a new needle. Just make sure you don’t suck any water up into the syringe to dilute the vaccine,” Williams says.

“I keep trying to come up with ways to create a sock for a syringe, like cutting off the finger of a big glove, making a slit for the needle to go through,” she says. A person might be creative with a big oven mitt to make an insulated “holster” for a syringe.

Some people use propane heaters to keep the work crew and equipment warm. “But don’t expose vaccines to hot temperatures,” Daly warns. “This also applies to pour-on products and antibiotics. Start with something that is proper temperature, and don’t let it freeze.

“If you’re using pour-on dewormer or delousing products administered via tubing, it doesn’t take very cold temperatures to freeze the tube. It pays to find ways to keep those products insulated and keep the tubing heated or insulated while working cattle. It’s much better to keep things from freezing than trying to thaw them out,” Daly says.

Stoltenow has seen some ingenious methods used by veterinarians when working cattle in cold weather. “Some have made warm boxes for keeping their equipment and vaccines from getting too cold. One was made of steel with a propane torch placed against the base of the table. This transmits heat to the table, and it won’t get too hot, but keeps everything warm that’s sitting on the table.”

Another innovation is an insulated box with a small opening, with a light bulb or two inside it to keep things warm — sitting on a surface that can be easily reached. 

Don't forget creature comforts

Research shows that acclimated cattle can utilize snow for water.

“This is fine; research shows it to be adequate. But after cattle are worked in cold weather, it’s important to give them access to water in liquid form so they can drink before we turn them back out on the pasture,” says John Hall, University of Idaho Extension beef specialist.

That’s because the cattle may be dehydrated after being penned up for a day while being worked. It’s easier for them to quickly rehydrate with water than to go back out and lick snow, he says.

Another consideration of working facilities is wind shelter. Working facilities might be less protected from wind than where the cows normally congregate, which likely has access to trees or windbreaks in field or pasture.

“So, it may be beneficial to provide a windbreak while cows are being worked. Even putting a few large square bales by the chute to make a temporary windbreak can help,” Hall says. Cows can become hypothermic while standing in the chute on a cold, windy day.

Cows are typically less affected by the cold than calves. Still, it’s wise to use low-stress handling to minimize excitement or exertion in cattle and workers.

“We probably shouldn’t be branding and having to clip cattle in cold weather, but many people do — especially if they’ve purchased new cattle,” says Charles Stoltenow, North Dakota State University professor and Extension assistant director. “If you are using a pour-on dewormer or delousing product, remember that some of those have flammable carriers. With the long hair, if you used one of those products and then hit the animal with a branding iron, you could set the hair on fire. Always think about what you are doing,” he says.

Creature comfort for the crew is also important. “The poor soul who has to stand there and do the records is always the coldest person on the crew. A portable shop heater or space heater can help. Even if it’s not right at the chute, it gives people a chance to go warm up a little, or warm their freezing hands while the crew is switching groups,” Hall says.

On a cold day, crew members may want to use battery-operated warmers for socks, gloves and vests. “The vest warmers plug into large batteries for recharging. A number of tool companies carry these,” Stoltenow says.

 

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