LEXINGTON, Ky. — A pre-Christmas blast of arctic air will drop Kentucky temperatures into the single digits, with windchills well below zero. Livestock producers and horse and pet owners need to take action to protect animals and themselves from the dangerous weather.
“This will likely be the coldest air we’ve seen in Kentucky since the winter of 2015,” said Matt Dixon, agricultural meteorologist for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Ag Weather Center. “In fact, we’ll likely see wind chills in the -10 to -20 range. The livestock heat stress index will run in the emergency category for most of Friday and through the weekend. Now is the time to take precautions. Following rain on Thursday, a flash freeze will be possible after the arctic front passes the area. Plan ahead and leave a day early if you’re traveling for the holidays.”
Adequate shelter, water, dry bedding and enough feed to make it through cold periods are vital elements to surviving these weather patterns. All outdoor livestock are at greater risk because they will not have enough time to adapt to the expected rapid drop of 30 to 40 degrees in just a few hours. Animals have a higher requirement for energy in the colder months, which means they need high-quality grains and forages.
“The average horse, with a lower activity level, should eat between 1.5 and 2 percent of its body weight in feed per day to maintain its weight,” said UK equine specialist Bob Coleman. “That feed requirement goes up in winter, as horses use more calories to keep warm. Provide extra hay and make sure horses have shelter to get out of windy, damp weather.”
Horses, livestock and pets must have access to clean, unfrozen water. Coleman said to check often to ensure water sources are open and thawed. Decreased water intake affects dry matter intake.
Ambient temperatures can impact the amount of dry matter livestock consume, providing an opportunity to compensate for increased maintenance energy needs. Producers either need to increase their animals’ feed intake or increase the energy density of the diet by feeding higher quality hay or adding more grain or fat to the grain mix, UK beef specialist Jeff Lehmkuhler said.
Lehmkuhler recommended producers continue monitoring all livestock during the cold months and make sure to maintain the animals’ body condition.
“Poor quality hay may not provide adequate energy to maintain gestating cows that are entering the third trimester,” he said. “Consider getting your hay tested to see if you need to supplement, especially during longer cold spells.”
Lehmkuhler recommended separating younger and thinner cows that may not have the same internal insulation as conditioned older cows and supplementing them accordingly or offering them higher quality forage if available. Coleman said equine owners may use similar methods and separate animals according to body condition score, age, pecking order or other needs.
“Producers should move livestock to fields with natural windbreaks or provide man-made windbreaks,” Lehmkuhler said. “Energy, or calories, is critical. If the forage protein level is adequate, don’t make supplement decisions based on protein level; rather, purchase the most affordable calories.”
The hair coat acts like insulation in the home attic—trapping air and enhancing the insulating value. Wet, muddy hair reduces insulating value and increases heat loss. As little as 0.1 inches of rain can immediately impact cold stress severity by matting the animal’s hair down, reducing its insulating ability. Acclimation time, hide thickness, fat cover and other factors also influence the degree of cold stress animals experience.
“If you have put blankets on your horses, make sure to check on them to make sure that the blanket is not wet, as that will just make the horse colder,” Coleman added.
The lower critical temperature value for cattle is the lowest temperature or wind chill at which no additional energy is required to maintain core body temperature.
“As the temperature declines below this lower critical value, the maintenance energy value for the animal is increased to maintain core body temperature,” Lehmkuhler said. “Animals maintain core body temperature by increasing their metabolism, resulting in greater heat production, as well as other heat conservation strategies, such as reducing blood flow to the extremities, shivering and increased intake.”
External and internal insulation influence the lower critical temperature. External insulation is the depth and thickness of the hair coat, condition of the hair coat and thickness of the hide. Thin-hided cattle, such as dairy breeds, tend to have a lower insulating factor than thick-hided breeds like Herefords. The condition of the hair coat is critical as an external insulation barrier.
Dairy producers should make sure cows’ teats are dry before turning animals out when temperatures fall below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
“If you turn out an animal with a wet udder or teats, frostbite is almost a certainty,” said Michelle Arnold, UK extension veterinarian. “Treat signs of frostbite immediately. Frostbite on the teat ends can quickly lead to damage of the keratin seal, and that can allow mastitis-causing bacteria to enter the udder.”
It’s important to give animals a draft-free area to protect them from the wind during extreme wind chill conditions.
“The challenge is to make that space available and still provide enough ventilation to allow fresh air to circulate,” Arnold said.
Dry bedding is vital. Cattle, goats or sheep laying in wet bedding are at risk for frostbite. Producers should make sure to keep animals’ hair coats as dry and as clean as possible.
These conditions pose risks to all animals, so pet owners should bring pets indoors. The American Veterinary Medicine Association has several tips for keeping pets safe in cold winter weather here https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/pet-owners/petcare/cold-weather-animal-safety.
“One of the most important things you can do is to take care of yourself in extreme cold,” Arnold said. “If you get into trouble, you can’t be the caregiver your livestock need. Keep an extra set of clothes and a blanket in the truck. An extra pair of dry boots is a great plan as well.”
Dixon said this event will be brutal but will quickly lead to a warmer period.
“Luckily, we do warm up going into the last week of 2022. In fact, long-range outlooks hint at higher confidence in above-normal temperatures near the New Year,” he said. “Normal high temperatures for Jan. 1 run in the low to mid-40s, while average lows will be in the mid-to upper-20s. It’ll definitely feel like a heat wave compared to this upcoming weekend.”
— Aimee Nielson, UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment