As people hunker down for another cold New Zealand winter, challenging times also lie ahead for animals exposed to the elements out on farms.
However AgResearch scientists say a wealth of research is now providing a much greater understanding of how the livestock cope with the wintry weather, and what can be done to help manage them through those icy periods.
“It’s understandable that people – especially those unfamiliar with rural life – might see animals out in a paddock in tough conditions, and be concerned for their welfare,” said AgResearch’s Animal Welfare Science Team Leader Jim Webster.
“Our research into dairy cows tells us that they can generally cope well in cold weather, as long as they are in good condition, healthy and well fed. While extreme cold can result in stress on the animals, they are able to adjust with physiological adaptations such as thickening of their skin and coats, and drawing on their fat reserves.”
“Cows are typically more affected by heat than by cold as lactation and rumination generate heat which can protect against cold, but can cause overheating in warm conditions.
“For New Zealand cows, it is probably more the rain and wind that is threatening their wellbeing, as they want a dry and soft place to lie down. Cows really don’t want to lie down in wet or muddy conditions. We know that daily periods of lying down are important for cows, and if they don’t lie down enough, this negatively affects their health and productivity.
“Our research has shown that there are things that farmers can do to make a real difference to support their cows through the coldest and wettest periods. That includes providing shelter where practical, as cows will naturally seek it out in rainy and windy conditions.
“Providing extra feed can be a buffer in terms of energy and heat generation from digesting the food before the adverse conditions set in, as cows may tend to reduce their food intake during wet and cold weather. Ensuring the cows have good fat reserves to draw on going into the coldest periods is important, as is keeping a close eye on younger and thinner animals as they are more sensitive to inclement weather.
“Another thing farmers can do is to provide dry, comfortable areas for the cows to lie in during the cold and wet conditions. Typically they will lie down less during these times, so looking for ways to increase this behaviour will be a real benefit.”
DairyNZ’s animal husbandry and welfare specialist Helen Thoday said when the weather turns and there is a combination of cold, wind and rain farmers should ensure cows can access shelter.
“It’s good practice when cows are grazing winter crops to fence them front and back, allowing them to access only a narrow strip of fodder at any one time. This helps to protect the soil and prevent them from stamping over and spoiling fodder. However, when the weather turns nasty we recommend farmers drop the back fence so their cows can move to shelter,” she said.
“Another consideration is that good environmental practice is to graze cows downhill, however, grazing downhill interrupts the natural grazing stance of a cow and reduces their feed intake. This can lead to underfeeding, so farmers should check what fodder the cows leave behind to estimate how much they have eaten, and, if necessary, allow them more space and time to feed on sloped land.
“It’s important to ensure the farm team understands a cow’s needs, and what sort of winter conditions can affect them.”