Feature Contributors

Purdue Extension of Fulton County-Winter with Cattle

Winter with Cattle


On Saturday, February 4th,2023, the record for the lowest recorded wind chill in the United States was set at Mt. Washington in New Hampshire at minus 108° F. I do not know what my personal record is for the lowest wind chill I have experienced but I do remember December 23, 1983, in Little Eagle South Dakota.

That day it was 20 below and winds up to 40 MPH and I found myself helping unroll large round hay bales for cattle on the prairies of South Dakota. We were in and out of warm trucks while those cows did not have that luxury.

A healthy beef animal in winter with a full coat of hair and no wind, rain, or mud on them is comfortable down to around 18 degrees. If they are being fed an adequate diet with hay and other fiber sources, their big old stomach, called a rumen, will be producing a lot of body-warming fermented heat.

When brutal cold conditions happen, cattle will escape the wind by standing in the draw between hills. When arriving with a large round bale of feed on a sunny day, it was difficult to lure those sunning black-haired animals out to the feed.

The Dakotas are no strangers to the cold. Back in the harsh winter of 1886-87, the great cattle barons including Teddy Roosevelt suffered pronounced losses that ended their investment in the Dakotas. Teddy did not know of the loss until he showed up the following spring to find half of his herd dead.

The turn them out and let them roam way of ranching is long gone. When winter comes the ranchers pick specific pastures for their cattle, with adequate areas to escape the wind. Teddy’s method is replaced by winter feeding and moving cattle to areas where they can be better sheltered from the elements. In those temperatures, more hay bales need to be fed to meet the energy needs of the animals.

With the current drought situation in much of the west, large amounts of money were spent purchasing hay this year in anticipation of the cows' winter energy needs.

What I find amazing is the insulating ability of the cow. Many times, cattle will have snow on their backs. The thicker the hair coat and variations in, age, size, wind speed, and numerous other factors will affect their ability to insulate. Cattle with a wet hair coat, regardless of how heavy it is, will have a lower critical temperature of around 59 degrees because the hair coats lose their insulation ability when wet.

Chopping ice is a daily ritual. Cattle in that area are watered out of dams. Cutting through a foot of ice with an axe in multiple locations allows the cattle a chance to have a good long drink before the ice freezes over again. From one day to the next, 10-12 inches of ice can refreeze in the previous day's ice hole. Wheeling an axe in those temperatures can help to warm a person up but at the same time, breathing in that cold air will frost the nose hairs.

I was better equipped to perform that task 39 years ago than I am today. But there are cattle still there and I am sure that this morning my brother-in-law could still be found chopping away. A memory for me, daily winter life for him.


Mark Kepler

Purdue Extension Educator, ANR

Fulton County





****photo provided by Mark Kepler****

Caption for photo:


Hay bales purchased to maintain cow health through the potentially cold South Dakota Winter.