Like most dirty jobs, maintaining winter cattle facilities isn’t a glamorous or even complex task, but it is vitally important. Cold, wet cattle are, at best, not in an environment to grow and perform. At worst, they are more susceptible to developing and spreading illness, including bovine respiratory disease (BRD).
The basics of winter facility management are common sense – keep cattle as dry as possible and maintain easy access to feed and water. While they are reasonably hearty when it comes to cold temperatures, wet cattle burn more calories, lose performance and are stressed. Trudging through heaped snow or mud also expends extra energy. A relatively clean living space, especially the feeding area, is important to make sure cattle feel comfortable leaving the most sheltered areas and coming to eat. All of these factors affect immunity and the animal’s ability to respond to vaccine and disease challenges.
This doesn’t mean producers need to spend hours cleaning up after every minor snow event. A light snow may not be a major issue, but slogging through knee-deep snow, especially as it turns to wet, slippery mud, can increase energy demands and lead to stumbling. Wet conditions and crowding also break down bedding more quickly. Clearing and replacing stalks or straw twice a week may be a headache, but soiled bedding can be just as much of a threat to well-being as mud or snow.
Windbreaks and shelters have their tradeoffs. In colder, wetter climates, a refuge from the elements is important but it is also a place where cattle may be swapping pathogens in close quarters. A good rule of thumb for enclosed spaces is that each animal should have 6 to 10 square feet, but even with plenty of space, cattle may huddle for warmth. This is where life cycle immune management and a producer’s vigilance in spotting potential health issues become especially important.
When individuals need to be pulled aside for treatment, a well-designed facility will allow producers to pull a sick animal and move it into the hospital pen with as little disturbance as possible. Low-stress handing is always important but even more so when the ground is slick. The hospital pen should be isolated, drain away from the general population and be the most comfortable area in the facility. As important as it is for healthy animals to stay dry and sheltered, it is especially important for cattle battling illness.