How Weather Affects Your Cattle and Horses’ Stress
Keeping your livestock healthy throughout the year allows your animals to be productive and avoid diseases. Unfortunately, weather conditions can present an obstacle to livestock’s health and well-being. But how exactly do weather changes and fluctuations affect the stress levels of your cattle and horses? What can changes in weather and stress levels mean for your livestock?
To keep your livestock thriving, it’s important to understand how exactly the weather impacts their stress levels and what you can do to help ease the effects of difficult weather conditions.
Body Temperature Regulation: Cattle and Horses
Livestock can regulate their body temperatures like humans, but only so much. The regulation of body temperature is known as thermoregulation. The body uses thermoregulation to avoid cold or heat stress. Because thermoregulation is limited, it’s important to note the weather changes that can impact the body temperature of your livestock.
1. Thermoregulation in Cattle
The body temperature of cattle is affected by their body condition, diet, conditions of their shelter and the thickness of their hair coat. Weather factors, such as wind and humidity, can also influence cattle’s body temperature.
Cattle hair coats vary by breed in terms of color and thickness. The hair coat also affects their ability to release heat through their skin. In a warmer region, cattle with a thick hair coat may be more susceptible to heat stress. Cattle with a thinner hair coat are more likely to be tolerant of higher temperatures in warm regions. Alternatively, cattle with a thinner hair coat may become more stressed in a colder environment.
Cattle body temperature can fall into three zones –– thermoneutral, upper critical (UCT) and lower critical temperature (LCT) zone. At the basal metabolic rate, cattle will be in the thermoneutral zone. So what exactly is the basal metabolic rate? It’s the amount of energy that is expended while cattle are at rest in neutral temperatures.
Neutral temperatures typically fall between 31 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, though this range can vary depending on the breed of cattle and the conditions of their environment. Wind, humidity and cattle hair coat all affect the temperature range that is considered neutral for cattle.
Upper critical temperatures are above the thermoneutral zone and increase the basal metabolic rate. The increased basal metabolic rate results in the body stimulating heat loss to maintain body temperature. When the temperature-humidity index is 80 or above, livestock may suffer from heat stress. Cattle produce little sweat and are not able to dissipate their heat efficiently, so producers often need to take steps to assist cattle with heat dissipation.
Cattle most often fall into the lower critical temperature zone during especially cold months, such as January and February. In LCT, cattle can experience cold stress. The basal metabolic rate increases to produce heat that can maintain or raise body temperature. This means the animal also requires more energy so it can produce heat. Beware of extreme cold stress, which can result in hypothermia.
2. Thermoregulation in Horses
Like cattle, thermoregulation in horses allows these animals to maintain, raise or lower body temperature. Unlike cattle, however, horses are more efficient at discharging heat in hot weather. Despite this, owners should still take measures to help their horses stay cool during hot, humid months. Horses use the following methods to maintain body temperature:
- Evaporation of sweat: A horse will produce sweat that then evaporates, cooling the animal down. In a humid climate, sweat may not be able to evaporate, preventing the horse from adequately cooling. Owners can assist with creating a less humid environment for their horses so that evaporation of sweat can occur.
- Convection: In this process, heat moves from inside the horse out into the air. Air movement and wind carry heat away from horses. To assist your horses further, especially if there isn’t much wind on a hot, humid day, a fan can be implemented to help move the air.
- Direct radiation: Radiant heat comes directly off the horse and isn’t effective when the horse is standing in the sun. Providing them with shade can make the radiant cooling process more effective.
- Conduction: Conduction is similar to convection, except that the heat that has built up in the horse’s blood is transferred to the air. On days when the air temperature is especially high, conduction isn’t very effective.
- Respiratory loss: Horses can also lose a small amount of heat when they exhale.
To determine whether it is too hot to work your horse, calculate the heat index. Add the temperature in Fahrenheit plus the percent of humidity. The sum is the heat index. If the heat index is less than 120, it is safer to work them. If the heat index is between 120 and 150, use caution when riding or exercising your horse. If the heat index is more than 150, it is important to avoid working them until the heat index has dropped.
10 Signs of Weather Stress in Livestock
How much cold can cows tolerate and how much cold can horses tolerate before they experience weather stress? To keep livestock healthy and productive, you should be aware of the signs of stress. Knowing what to look for means you can improve your livestock’s conditions when the weather is posing extremes that can be detrimental to their health.
- Reduced milk production. During hot weather, dairy cows may experience reduced milk production due to stress. Feed intake drops in dairy cattle when temperatures rise, causing milk production to also drop. This decrease in milk production can have a major negative impact on the prosperity of the dairy business, so you’ll want to relieve your cows of weather stress as quickly as possible to ensure continued productivity.
- Changes in feed and water intake. In hot weather, cattle may consume less feed. Reduced feed intake can cause ruminal acidosis and decrease the animal’s production of volatile fatty acids. This, in turn, reduces the cow’s energy levels and fat content in its milk. In the heat, cattle and horses may also drink more water to stay hydrated and cool.
- Reduced conception rate. Calving alone puts stress on a cow. Combine the stress from calving with weather stress? Lowered fertility and fewer calves.
- Rapid respiration rate. Extreme cold weather can result in cold stress. Young animals are particularly susceptible to respiratory issues in cold weather conditions. Horses may also pant when they are dealing with heat stress, so if you are noticing rapid respiration in your cattle or horses, they may be experiencing weather stress.
- Standing when other cattle are lying down. When a cow is behaving differently from the other cattle, it’s a sign that something is wrong. A cow that stands while the others are lying down could be experiencing weather stress.
- Weight loss. Stressed cattle and horses may also experience weight loss due to a lack of appetite. The weight loss may negatively affect an animal’s ability to stay warm and productive in cold weather.
- Frequent urination. Cattle and horses may also urinate more frequently when experiencing weather stress. Animals may urinate frequently to relieve stress or because of increased intake of water. Horses may also produce a greater amount of manure or experience diarrhea.
- Weakened immune system. Cold stress, especially prolonged cold stress, can increase the cortisol levels in a cow or horse and weaken the animal’s immune system. Stressed animals are more likely to become ill by contracting infectious diseases. Since diseases may spread quickly to other livestock, this can become a major problem for producers.
- Frequent yawning. In horses, frequent yawning may be a sign of stress. Yawning releases endorphins, so frequent yawning could be a coping mechanism for your horse as it combats stress.
- Rapid heart rate and excessive sweating. If you notice a rapid heart rate in your cow or horse, the animal may be suffering from heat stress. Trembling is a similar sign of weather stress that may appear in cattle and horses, especially if they are trembling in an ordinary situation without a stressful trigger, such as transportation or a visit from the veterinarian. Heat stress may also cause horses to sweat excessively.
Here are a few more visible signs of heat stress you may notice in cattle:
- Increased production of saliva or slobbering
- Seeking out shade
- Open-mouth breathing
- Lack of coordination
- Splashing water
- Small or premature calves
Weather effects on horses can also cause lower productivity and cause poor health. High-performance horses and foals are particularly vulnerable to heat stress. Additional signs to watch out for include:
- Little or no sweat production
- Dry, hot skin
- Abnormally high rectal temperatures (99-101°F is the normal range)
To determine whether a horse is dehydrated due to heat stress, pinch the skin on the horse’s neck. The skin should spring back to its original position. If not, your horse could be dehydrated.
Extreme weather stress can put your animal’s health and even life at risk, so watch out for these signs and take action as soon as possible if you believe your animal is experiencing weather stress.
How Do I Cool Down Livestock?
In hot weather, animals perform some temperature control methods on their own. Cattle may stand in water or crowd together under a shady tree. You can also take action to keep your animals cool.
1. How Do You Cool Down Cattle?
If you’re concerned about your cattle dealing with heat stress, there are a few steps you can take to give them some relief.
- You can provide more ventilation. Because cattle don’t produce much sweat, airflow is critical to keep their body temperature from getting too high in hot weather. When the animals are in a confined area, set up large fans that can remove stale or stagnant air. Increased air flow will allow cattle to properly discharge excess body heat.
- You can use misters or foggers. Mist systems combined with powerful airflow are effective in cooling animals off. Misters or foggers can be much more effective and efficient than trying to cool the environment around the cattle.
- You can supplement your cow’s diet. Cows consume less feed in hot weather, which can reduce a cow’s energy levels and the fat content in its milk. You may want to supplement the cow’s diet to reduce heat stress. A supplement like CattlActive® can neutralize acids, boost energy and lactation and even help cows produce higher-quality milk.
2. How Do You Cool Down Horses?
High temperatures and humidity, poor ventilation, lack of airflow and exposure to direct sunlight can also result in heat stress in horses. Owners can use a few strategies to help horses stay cool in hot weather and climates:
- Exercise conditioning: If you’ll be competing, it’s important to condition animals in the environmental and weather conditions that are similar to the conditions you anticipate in your competition setting.
- Monitor for heat stress: On a daily basis, check for heat stress in your horses. Monitoring your horses will help you notice their cooling needs as soon as an issue arises. You can then take immediate action.
- Allow horses to acclimate: When introducing your horses to new, warmer environments, give the animals a chance to acclimate. You may want to allow up to a few weeks for acclimation.
- Clip the winter coat: Clipping a horse’s winter coat can improve the dissipation of heat from the horse during exercise. Clipping has the added benefit of also making grooming the horse easier. Use a blanket in the winter to keep the horse warm.
Use these strategies to help keep your livestock cool in hot weather.
How Do I Warm Up Livestock?
In cold weather, you may find livestock huddling together in low spots to keep warm and avoid the wind.
How Do Cows and Horses Stay Warm in Winter?
In preparation for the winter months, cattle and horses grow long, coarse hair to keep their bodies warm. When the hair gets wet, it can become more difficult for the hair to trap warm air. Cattle and horses can get cold in the rain; they can benefit from shelter so that their hair can dry after being exposed to moisture.
Livestock will also consume more feed to help build body fat stores and create energy, which will insulate them from the frigid weather and allow them to produce more body heat. You’ll also probably see them crowding together in a field to share body heat.
How Do You Keep Cows Warm?
When it comes to wintering cattle outside, there are steps you can take to help cattle stay warm.
- Allow for communal living: Cattle can huddle together to keep each other warm. Try to arrange for each animal to have at least one or two others they can huddle next to in cold conditions.
- Provide shelter: Protect your cows from precipitation and the wind by providing shelter they can easily access. If barn-kept, the space should also allow for proper ventilation to avoid the buildup of moisture.
- Provide dry, clean bedding: Clean out waste regularly so that the bedding is dry and put down fresh bedding after cleaning.
How Do You Keep Horses Warm?
There are a few steps you can take to keep your horses warm in cold weather.
- Provide shelter: To keep horses warm, provide them with a shelter that can protect from wind, rain and snow. The shelter you provide should minimize moisture and drafts. Ideally, horses should have a shelter they can access at any time.
- Use blankets: You can also use horse blankets to keep your animals warm. Be sure the blanket fits correctly and that you remove it every day to check for sores or irritation. You should also use different types of blankets for different weather conditions. If your horse may be exposed to moisture, provide them with a blanket that not only is waterproof but wicks away moisture from the body.
- Adjust diet: You can also adjust a horse’s diet. Increased body fat will allow them to stay warm in cold weather and the added calories will give them more energy to produce heat.
Weather fluctuations can have a significant impact on the stress levels among livestock. You can stay ahead of the weather to keep your livestock comfortable by referring to a heat index map. Another great option for helping your livestock avoid weather stress is by providing them with CattlActive® or Zesterra®. CattlActive® and Zesterra® can help regulate the stomachs and PH balances of cattle and horses and help them become more resilient to stress caused by extreme heat or cold.
To help maintain your livestock’s health and wellness, you can browse our products at Pro Earth Animal Health today.