With the temperature hovering around 18 Thursday, Van Peters chopped ice on his pond so his cows could drink water.
It’s a yearly ritual for ranchers: The weather gets cold, and the animals still need to drink. They also need more feed as they burn more calories staying warm.
“When it’s this cold,” Peters said, “they eat twice as much, and it takes twice as long to feed them. For water, we haul it out or chop ice.”
Peters has about 500 pregnant cows that need even more calories as they prepare to give birth. The calves are born early in the year so they can graze on grass as early in the spring as possible in order to put on weight. However, a harsh winter can kill young calves vulnerable to the cold and illnesses.
“Because of losses, we have pushed back our calving until March 1. That’s later than usual,” Peters said. “The baby calves get stressed pretty quickly. We hope to avoid some of the losses because of the cold weather.”
Peters, who has been a rancher more than 40 years, partners with his son Ryan to run Peters Cattle Company.
A cows gives birth outside unless she’s a first-time heifer giving birth during a blizzard, or if she’s having trouble with the birth, Peters said. He brings those having difficulty inside the barn.
“There are places we can put her and help her have a calf or pull a calf,” said Peters, who started buying cows when he was 15.
Tracy Brunner, who runs Cow Camp Feed Yard in rural Ramona, said cold weather is especially difficult for younger cattle. Brunner has about 5,000 cattle on his property, all between the age of 6 months and two years old. During a harsh winter, Brunner also takes losses.
“The cold adds stress to the cattle, and probably diminishes their gain,” Brunner said. “That’s because their energy goes toward keeping warm and not as much for gain.”
Brunner said mature cattle can endure the cold weather as long as they stay dry. Problems ensue when the animals get wet.
“As long as their hair stays dry, they don’t lose as much heat,” Brunner said. “When it’s wet, the hair mats down and increases their vulnerability to the cold. Cold and dry is not that bad. Cold and wet is really dangerous.”
Cattle with snow built up on their backs are a regular sight in the country during a snowfall. Brunner said that’s not a concern unless the temperature warms up.
There’s little danger to the animal “if the snow blows off before it warms up and melts,” Brunner said. Otherwise, “It’s like you being outside with a wet sweatshirt on,” he said.
For Brunner, perhaps the biggest challenge during a cold snap is keeping water available. He relies on electric heaters and the natural heat of fresh water bubbling up out of the ground.
“You just do the basics and make sure everything has enough feed and water, which takes longer than usual,” Brunner said. “When the days are short like this, you don’t have time for anything else.”