I grew up in northern Iowa, and I can tell you, the winters up north can bring miserable weather for people and animals alike — gusty winds, blowing snow and freezing temperatures.

Floyd County Farm Bureau member Laura Cunningham says her family works hard to make sure their cattle stay warm, dry and comfortable in winter.

The Cunninghams move the cattle off pasture and into a feedyard next to their home, protected from the frigid north winds. They use cornstalk bedding, which is fluffy and absorbent, to keep the cattle dry and warm. And they provide high-energy feed and heated waterers to make sure the cattle can enjoy fresh, unfrozen water.

“Those cold, cold North Iowa temp­eratures and winds can really make cattle uncomfortable and put them at risk for getting sick, so it’s all about managing their environment here in the yard or undercover,” says Cunningham, who farms with her husband, Aaron, near Nora Springs.

Iowa farmers care for their farm animals in the winter — and year-round — lots of different ways. Yet whatever method they use, farmers recognize that they must raise animals responsibly. They are always focused on continuous improvement to give farm animals the targeted care they need.

Stacie Euken, a Cass County Farm Bureau member and mom to two young boys who love the country life, raises cattle and hogs on her family’s farm near Wiota.

Euken houses the pigs in open lots and “hoop”-type buildings, which provide enclosed shelter but are open at front to the elements. She raises show pigs for local 4-H and FFA students and sells pork to local customers.

In the winter, she provides the pigs with cornstalk bales to help keep them warm. She also checks often to make sure their water isn’t frozen.

“We always focus on animal care, but it’s a lot more work in the wintertime to make sure that they are safe,” Euken says. “If we had our choice, the modern (enclosed) buildings is what we would prefer just because of the care. You know that the pigs are warm in the wintertime and cool in the summertime.

“There is a misconception in a lot of people’s minds that it’s better for the animals to be outdoors. They think from an animal welfare standpoint that’s better,” she continues. “There are pros and cons to everything. I think if you just want to make it work for you, you do what you can.”

Many livestock farmers raise their animals in enclosed barns for a variety of reasons, says Dr. Suzanne Millman, a veterinarian and professor of animal welfare at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Indoor facilities allow farmers to better protect farm animals from freezing winters, wet springs and sweltering summers, Millman says. It also protects livestock from diseases carried by wildlife, and farmers can give their animals more close-up attention and individual care.

“Think of yourself roughing it in the bush. It’s not always what the animal wants, but it’s what the animal is stuck with,” Millman says.

Farmers have always focused on animal well-being from a health, quality and food safety standpoint. But now, farmers are focusing more on animal behavior — for example, trying to give a cow what it needs “to be a cow,” Millman says.

“People are really engaged in this issue, and the farmers themselves have been putting money up for this (animal well-being) research. They are going after the real hard-hitting issues and not being shy about it. The farmers are really listening to their customers,” Millman says.

There isn’t one perfect way to raise livestock, Millman says. Yet farmers are continuously seeking new information from experts like Millman to provide farm animals with the best care possible.

“It is a version of the human-animal bond, that pride that farmers have in animal care - in the same way that a teacher has with a classroom,” Millman says. “They choose it be­cause it’s their passion. They love nature, they love animals, they love the lifestyle.”

Cunningham says one of her favorite things is checking on the cattle every day to see if a new calf was born or to make sure the animals are healthy.

The winter is “meeting season” for farmers, Cunningham says. She and her husband participate in training workshops hosted by their local veterinarian clinic and Iowa State University Extension to learn the latest in animal care.

Euken says she completed Pork Quality Assurance training, which further educates her on how to provide targeted care for pigs.

In addition, she works closely with her veterinarian and a nutritionist to give her animals precisely what they need at each stage of their life.

“Farmers care about their livestock and are well educated. We do everything we can to make sure that everything we do on our farm to care for our animals, we have welfare in mind,” Euken says.

Indeed, farmers are out there — every single day — caring for their animals, Millman adds.

“Think about the worst day imag­inable, and you have to go out and clear the snow in the driveway and go out inspecting your animals and getting the feed out there. And there are days when you’re just not feeling well, or you have a sore back and there you are working with animals. You can’t underestimate that daily commitment to caring about animals.”

Get answers to animal care questions

Iowans with concerns about farm animal care are encouraged to contact Iowa Farm Animal Care (IFAC), a unique coalition that includes veterinarians, animal behavior scientists and farmers committed to addressing Iowans’ questions regarding farm animal care.

Dr. Suzanne Millman at Iowa State University, one of the animal behavior experts at IFAC, says if you are concerned about animal well-being on a livestock farm, you can call IFAC and the experts will follow up with the farmer to see if assistance is needed. Your calls will remain anonymous.

Iowans with questions can visit the new mobile friendly website at www.iowafarmanimalcare.org or call 1-800-252-0577. This free resource is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and Iowa Pork Producers Association.