You look at the thermometer before going to work and see the air temperature is 25 degrees below zero for the third day in a row. You add a scarf and stocking hat for good measure. You make sure the car is warm before you depart. Do you have a set of jumper cables? Your phone?
When the frigid winter weather brings arctic temperatures across the northern plains, the resilient habitants of this land need to be prepared. Otherwise, calamities such as frostbite, frozen water pipes and vehicles that will not start ensue.
While there are many preparations we make on the farm for winter, I would like to focus on how we care for our cattle as bitter temperatures, relentless wind chills and drifting snow are frequent in North Dakota.
Beef cattle actually adapt to cold temperatures in a gradual manner throughout the season. They grow a longer hair coat and deposit more fat to insulate their bodies. Cattle will also increase their metabolic rate – heart rate, respiration and blood flow – in severe cold temperatures.
Cattle eat more during the winter to maintain their bodies, which means we, as caretakers, must have adequate high-quality feed supplies on hand to feed cattle every day. This year, with the extreme drought our region experienced, we are conducting a balancing act: Feed the cattle what they need to prosper every day while trying to stretch our feed supply so we do not run out of feed before the grazing season begins.
We use windbreaks to help our cattle get through days and nights of cold temperatures. These range from tree rows to portable panels to solid fences. We bed our cattle with corn stalk and straw bales, because all of our cattle are housed outside. Bedding is extremely important to provide a layer of insulation between the frozen ground and snow and the cattle. The bedding also protects udders from frostbite. Bedding keeps cattle cleaner and drier, and encourages cattle to lay down as a group to keep the entire pen of cattle warm.
The water fountain in every pen of cattle is heated, and even then, a fountain can freeze up with ice during the coldest of days. One of our fountains was frozen last week on a day when the mercury in the area registered 52 degrees below zero, and Doug was able to thaw the pipeline by using a propane flame torch.
So, when passersby drive past our farm this winter and see our cattle outside in the bitter cold, they need not fret. Cattle, when given proper nutrition, shelter and water, will truly thrive in even the harshest of elements.