Wintertime Cow Care

Ready for winter?

group of animal gathered on field covered with snow
Photo courtesy of

Below are a few Hale & Hearty tips and tricks to make the winter smoother:

#1: HAY

BEFORE winter you need…

  • A) Evaluate the size of your farm with the density of animals and hay storage area.
    • Bluntly: Do you own too many animals? Sell or butcher to an appropriate size – it’ll make your winter so much more bearable! We fight this issue every year, as lambs and chicks and calves are born each spring and thrive throughout the summer month….but by winter, the reality check hits that only so many animals are needed to “over-winter” properly.
  • B) Stock up on hay, ideally enough for the longest possible winter months!
    • Our hay-eating season is definitely October through April, but in months of drought or delayed wet spring, it’s very realistic to add another month or two of hay feeding time. Our goal is to have at least ONE month’s feed left over come spring.

What’s the big deal?

  1. Prepare in advance to avoid metabolic stress from feed changes: If you are able to feed the same variety of hay(s) all winter, the cow’s rumen will adapted to those hays. Any sudden changes may greatly affect her digestion, risking ketosis or diarrhea or worse. Any of those issues can negatively affect milk production.
  2. Hay is generally cheapest in-season (June through September for most of us Northerners): I don’t know any rich farmers. Buying hay in season is your “best deal”! Also, you’ll better know what you are buying. For example, if you buy hay fresh out of the field in July and you know there has not been a rain in 2 weeks, that hay did not get rained on. Once it’s baled and barned, who knows what kind of story the hay becomes….
  3. A dairy cow requires LONG-STEMMED fiber as her primary diet. Even if hay is twice as expensive as pellets, it’s worth the expense in quality. That means alfalfa cubes don’t cut it as a major feed source for cattle (ruminants). Cubes or pellets are expensive, heavily processed, questionably nutritious, finely chopped fiber particles that are unable to regulate digestion. Hay wins the argument almost every time! (Extreme situations do apply, where alfalfa pellets may be all you can source….if so, they’re better than nothing. Consider Chaffhaye, a non-GMO fermented alfalfa that is highly digestible and nutritious.)
  4. High quality hay cuts down on grain needs/costs. YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR, FOR SURE! You might need to increase grain feeding if your cow early in her lactation in winter or thin and needs some extra energy to keep or put weight on, but high quality hay will maintain your cow’s body condition far more than inferior hay.


Winter is a good time to evaluate & trim hooves. Click for Hoof Trimming Tutorial

Hooves are softer in the winter from all the moisture cow’s feet are exposed to.

FYI: In the summer, hooves turn hard like rocks and are much more difficult to trim!Ethel's cow trimmed


#3: HAUL or HOP

Decide: Do I bring my cow to the machine or the machine to the cow? This was a question I never thought to ask until we moved to our current location…which featured a perfect outdoor milking area…RIGHT NEXT TO our basement!

Our cows walk a path around our house to a walk-in basement. The basement is a concrete floor, insulated area that is not usable as human living quarters but is an excellent work area. We keep all our equipment in the basement, and therefore have no worries about frozen pulsators or a pump that won’t start! On the worst cold mornings, we put on the machine, then jump back inside to warm up by the fireplace while the cow gets milked outside (poor cow, but lucky us!)

In coldest weather, when our pump was in an outside area, we put insulation and a lightbulb near the pump to keep the pump from freezing – one little lightbulb made the difference! Note: In this photo, we were using the lightbulb for light. In winter, we would put a cardboard box over the motor and put the light under it, next to the motor.

Many setups are outside in a barn environment. If this is so, and is your only option, then position your equipment in the most insulated area you can find, or create an insulated box to keep your pump in. A lamp with a light bulb can help keep the worst of frost off your pump, down to a point.

We recommend always bringing your milking equipment inside, or at minimal, bring in your pulsator. I had many frustrating days trying to warm up a pulsator so it would work! You can also keep a spare pulsator ( has cheap pulsators you can buy for a spare) in case one gets moisture inside and freezes.

TIP: Save your FIREPLACE ASH – When spread atop ice, ash makes the perfect non-skid footing. We keep the cow path clear by using wood chips & fireplace ash along the pathway from the barn to the basement.

burning firewood photo
Photo courtesy of


prepostdipTeat dip can freeze in really cold weather, so you can keep a “tool box” with your equipment that needs to head to a warm room between milkings. Consider purchasing a teat dip with emollients that are thick teat dips that will stick to the cow longer as a post dip and can help prevent frost. In below zero weather, you should consider using a powdered teat dip OR a creamy salve instead of regular teat dip. Watch out for frostbite or wind-chapped teats.

Homemade teat protection creams can be made from a combination of various oils. I like lanolin, beeswax, and a non-hardening oil like olive oil whipped together with tea tree oil. Click for some recipes.


"Free-stalls" home-made stylePhoto courtesy of Cheryl Buscher
Home-made style “Free stalls”   – Photo courtesy of Cheryl Buscher

Bedding is essential for a milking cow in cold weather. Most importantly, a cow must be able to keep her udder dry. We utilize freestalls, but a bedded pack or similar bed can work sufficiently IF kept dry and clean daily. Freestalls require very minimal care and bedding and are shockingly cost effective. Bedded packs get wet quicker (cows do not pee in free stalls, they do in bedded packs). For more on free stalls: CLICK HERE

In either case, you should try to have soft bedding. A cow is several hundred pounds. She’s a lot bigger than a deer out in the wild, and she’s usually not as fat, like a pig or bear would be! So this means cushy bedding (something like straw) combined with a basework bedding (we use shavings, but consider maybe sand or dirt with a tapered drainage rock edge) makes for a snuggly-warm bed for your cows at night. No worries, they’ll be warm!


This cow has a fully clipped udder for a summertime AJCA appraisal, but in winter, only clip around the teats. The rest of the udder can stay a bit hairy.

If your cow gets hairy-udder-syndrome in the winter… it is okay to trim the hair around the teats. Use human hair clippers or even just scissors to trim the hair right around her teats so the hairs don’t get continually pulled out during the cleaning or milking processes.

A good sign of proper cow care is a cow with a clean udder (the majority of the time). Every cow has an accident now and again, but in general, clean bedding should minimize the need for deep cleaning an udder in winter months. If your cow is coming in with a dirty udder every day, really consider freestalls!



Milking cows need tempered water: A dairy cow uses essential energy “warming up” the water she drinks in order to get that water up to her body temperature of 101.5 degrees F. The less “warming up” she has to do, the more energy she can put toward body condition and milk production.

Water heaters function to keep water around 40 degrees. When water goes below that temperature, cows significantly decline in water consumption.

Considering the gallons and gallons of milk a cow produces daily, of which 85% is water… She needs access to ice-free water 24/7! 

Stocking up on hay in summer months (and all the associated HARD WORK!) pays big dividends come winter!

Don't be afraid if your cow's milk production goes down. While she may not milk what she does in summer time... she pays her way in cream!


Don’t be afraid if your cow’s milk production goes down. While she may not milk what she does in summer time… she pays her way in cream!

In general, fresh pasture grass = high production (meaning, more gallons of milk per day) & hay feeding = less % water, so more cream per gallon.

The jar in the back is more like what spring and summer milk will look like – less creamy but more milk overall. The jar in front is a good example of winter milk – production may be down by # of gallons (or pounds), but the percentage of cream is high.



A last tip: Any time you have a baby born in winter time, be sure to avoid wind. Drafts can cause calves to get sick very easily in cold weather.

Ideal options are: a calf dome (a plastic individual calf pen designed to regulate heat and cold) or a well-ventilated pen protected from wind with thickly bedded straw and shavings to keep the calf warm and dry. Ventilation can be above the height of the calf, so the calf is protected by side walls. A close-able door is nice to be able to open into a run/pen so that the calf can enjoy sunshiny days.



Thank You!

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