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Winter challenges: Optimize feeding, housing and lighting

J. D. Kleinschmidt Published on 31 December 2015
cows in a barn

Winter weather will affect feed preparation and delivery, manure handling, barn and parlor ventilation, and the movement of people, equipment and trucks.

An ice storm or weather pattern may precipitate difficult situations such as power outages, blizzards, extended periods of cold weather, impassable roads, frozen water pipes and equipment failures.



It would be time well spent to train employees to use back-up equipment and tools. Discuss priorities, emergency procedures and expectations with all employees so periods of nasty weather don’t catch you unprepared.

Winter dairy feeding

Winter feeding has as many advantages as it does disadvantages. All of the year’s crops are in and have several months to ferment. Good feed inventory planning means animals should be receiving a consistent supply of high-quality forages and feeds.

I encourage my clients to submit monthly forage samples and perform dry matter analysis on wet forages on a weekly basis.

All production groups (milking, dry and heifer groups) should be body condition scored regularly, and the energy in the rations adjusted accordingly.

I find heifer groups in open housing are the most likely to require additional energy during cold spells in order to maintain their body condition. During a particularly brutal prairie winter storm several years ago, one client’s bred heifer group refused to come out of the shelter of an open-face heifer barn to eat.


Some would dash out, slug feed and return to shelter for many hours; others remained huddled in the shelter the entire time. When the storm cleared, we spent several days repairing displaced abomasums and treating acidosis; the entire group was set back.

In extreme situations like this, throwing dry hay bales into the shelter would help keep the animals full and ruminating until they could get back to their normal ration.

Similarly, calves in hutches require 12 to 15 percent of bodyweight milk or milk replacer in cold weather, as opposed to 10 percent bodyweight in ambient temperatures. Feeding high-quality, high-fat (greater than 20 percent) milk replacer or whole milk can increase energy intake three times a day, or increasing the amount fed per feeding will accomplish this.

Water is the first limiting nutrient for all mammalian animals, including the dairy cow: No water, no milk. Ensure that all water bowls are flowing and ice does not impair your animals’ ability to drink as much quality water as they desire.

Frozen silage and wet commodities are an obvious challenge in extreme cold. Upright silos usually present more of a challenge than horizontal silos, particularly if forages are harvested quite wet.

Apart from the challenge of removing frozen forages from the silo, these products are usually poorly fermented and have been exposed to extended respiration. Wet commodities such as wet brewers grains may need to be delivered more frequently or stored in a sheltered area during winter months.


The cow and the cold

Dairy animals can actually do very well in cold weather, probably better than in hot weather, if they have a clean, dry resting area with plenty of draft-free fresh air.

Damp, drafty spaces can chill animals, making them more susceptible to a depressed immune system; moist conditions can allow airborne pathogens to survive longer, increasing the chances for a disease outbreak. Cows lying against outside barn walls or doors may freeze teats, quarters or other body parts.

Offer all animals protection against drafts and cold winds. Provide access to clean, dry and comfortable bedded areas and use extra bedding to keep animals clean and dry.

Remove hair from udders by either clipping or singeing. Long hair makes cows more prone to having wet and dirty udders, possibly leading to frostbite.

Don’t turn cows out into windy, drafty conditions as soon as teat dip has been applied. Let them stand in the milking area for an extra minute or two. If it is excessively cold, blot teats with a towel before turning them out.

Post-milk teat dipping in cold temperatures can cause irritations that may range from simple chapping and cracking to frostbite. These irritations can inhibit milk letdown, lower milk production and cause more mastitis cases.


One of the biggest challenges to winter is the short photoperiod associated with it. Long-day photoperiod response in milking cows has been well documented by many research units around the world. It has been determined that providing dairy cows with a constant 16 to 18 hours of light results in:

  • Higher milk production, ranging between 5 to 16 percent
  • Greater feed intake, up to 6 percent
  • Enhancement of reproductive development in heifers

Six to eight hours of darkness is mandatory because continuous or around-the-clock light will provide no response. A lighting scheme of this type is difficult in poorly lit barns during the long winter months.

Most researchers recommend target light levels of 20-foot candles. How much light is this? With a 20-foot candle, you should be able to easily read a newspaper at any location in the barn.

Freestall barns require different lighting strategies than tiestall barns do. Often freestall barns are poorly lit because the lights are placed only over the feeding alley, away from the stalls where most cows spend the majority of their time.

Proper lighting is also a challenge in 3X milking herds. Dim red bulbs (4 watts) can be used to facilitate cow movement and observation, and cows cannot see red light.

Preparing housing and equipment for the cold

There’s still time to get some use from winterizing facilities, if you haven’t already done so. These tips, adapted from an article by Kevin Janni, University of Minnesota, can make your cows (and your staff) a lot more comfortable.

Mechanically ventilated barns and parlors

  • Make sure shutters on fans open and close freely. Clean and apply graphite (not oil or grease) to fan shutters.
  • Check and clean fans; follow manufacturers’ guidelines.
  • Check gable and soffit air inlets for blockages and plugged screens. Clean and restore air flow.
  • Check and clean heaters for increased efficiency and safe operation; follow manufacturers’ recommendations.
  • Clean thermostats; check settings and operation.
  • Repair broken windows and doors. Reduce leaks to minimize drafts and lubricate for easier operation.
  • Cover hot-weather ventilating fans with plastic to reduce infiltration and drafts.
  • Review cold-weather ventilation plans to provide adequate air exchange to avoid damp conditions and excessive condensation on building surfaces.

Naturally ventilated barns

  • Check curtains and lubricate doors so they can be easily opened and closed.
  • Repair ripped curtains and damaged doors to reduce drafts.
  • Check eave inlets for blockages and plugged screens.
  • Set management guidelines to provide adequate air exchange during cold weather.
  • Avoid damp conditions and excessive condensation on building surfaces.

Equipment checks

  • Check and test standby generators; follow manufacturers’ recommendations.
  • Weatherize all engines and equipment; follow manufacturers’ recommendations.
  • Review cold-weather starting and operating procedures for all equipment.
  • Prepare snow removal equipment.
  • Check water lines to minimize frozen pipes.
  • Drain sprinkler systems.

Very little effort now will save you and your cows distress during winter’s harshness.  PD

J. D. Kleinschmidt is with J. D. Kleinschmidt Agri-Consultants. Email J.D. Kleinschmidt.

PHOTO: Staff photo.