Why don’t cows freeze outside in the winter?
Meet an Iowa farmer with a lifetime of experience keeping cows and other farm animals warm in winter. When the temperatures dip below freezing, we make sure our pets stay warm and cozy.
Iowa farmers also take extra steps to ensure their farm animals are safe and comfortable in the cold.
Cattle, in particular, are well-equipped to handle Iowa’s winter weather, says Vanessa Trampel, a livestock farmer from Garner and chairman of Iowa Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Advisory Committee.
Cattle have built-in insulation against the cold with their thick winter coat, or hide. Plus, their average body temperature runs warm, around 101 degrees. In fact, cattle prefer the cold to hot temperatures.
“Cattle do really well and thrive in the winter months,” Trampel says. “Between the heat and cold, there’s not a huge difference in how it affects the animal daily in regard to health overall.”
Trampel, who also grew up on a cattle farm, describes how farmers ensure the well-being of their livestock in the winter:
Optimal body condition
Farmers provide about 20% more feed to cattle heading into the colder months to add more body fat. This extra fat acts as insulation, conserving body heat. Cattle have a unique ruminant digestion system, which generates body heat. “They’re like little furnaces,” Trampel says.
Just like how a well-insulated house has snow on the roof, it's the same with cows. It is a good sign if you see snow on their backs, Trampel says. “It tells us they’re retaining their body heat and not shedding heat. That is a happy, warm cow,” she says.
Tracking the weather
Farmers keep an eye on the weather forecast. If it predicts a winter storm or below-zero wind chills, they give extra feed to cattle before the weather changes. This extra feed gets the cattle’s internal “furnace” going to generate body heat.
Providing a clean environment
Farmers will constantly move the cattle or their feed to drier spots. “If a cow gets wet or muddy, it clumps their hair up. It’s like cutting a hole in your coat. It breaks that barrier of insulation,” Trampel says.
Access to fresh water
Cattle drink a lot of water in the winter to keep their metabolism humming. Farmers check regularly to ensure water tanks aren’t frozen, adding insulation and tank heaters to prevent freezing.
Farmers provide windbreaks, like tree plantings, wood panels or hay bales, for cattle to get behind when the wind chill drops. Many Iowa farmers also raise cattle under roof to protect the herd from winter weather.
Moving the cattle around
Farmers keep cattle moving throughout the day to warm them and boost their metabolism. “When we morning feed, we go get all the cows up, walk through the cows, get them moving,” Trampel says. “If you have a cow that is down and not getting up by 6 a.m., you can get a vet there before the wind picks up, as the sun comes up.”
Trampel says farmers work year-round, in all kinds of Midwest weather, because they love caring for farm animals and working outdoors.
“If you as a consumer have questions about your food or how it was raised on a farm, go to the source. Ask a farmer,” Trampel says. “We all love to talk about what we do. And I always urge people to reach out to young farmers. We’re very passionate about what we do. We’ll talk to anybody.”
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