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Care should be taken when working cattle in the cold

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on Feb. 1, 2020

Inclement weather creates more challenges when processing cattle. Russ Daly of South Dakota State University, says cows are less likely be adversely affected by cold than are calves, since cows have more body mass and stay warmer, but it’s wise to use low-stress handling and not get animals excited or exerted, which puts them at more risk for respiratory disease.

“Cattle handle cold better than heat when working them, but we still don’t want to run them around too much,” says Daly. “Stresses are additive when processing cattle, vaccinating, weaning calves or castrating and dehorning.”  


            Check the chute and moving parts, make sure alleys and crowding chutes are in good repair and gates aren’t frozen down or immobile in a snow drift. 

Shannon Williams, Lemhi County Extension Educator in Salmon, Idaho suggests walking through everything the day before. Then we have time to shovel snow or chop away ice so gates will swing properly. 

            “Be sure walkways and working areas are ice-free. In winter we are bundled up and not as agile,” says Williams.

John Hall, Extension beef specialist at the University of Idaho, says it is important to have a non-slip surface where cattle exit the chute. If there’s packed snow or ice on the ground, or a concrete apron that’s wet and slick, cattle may slip and fall.  

            “We groove the concrete apron, using a diamond tread pattern Temple Grandin recommends,” Hall explains. “If concrete is snow-covered, we shovel it off or put ice-melt or sand on it. Cinders or ashes will also work on icy spots to make the surface gritty and not slippery. There are also commercial mats made from woven recycled tires we can put in front of a chute.” 

            “Rubber provides a rough surface for better traction, and woven mats have pockets between the strands so cows can get a toe-hold as they come out of the chute.  Those mats can be moved around where needed, to cover a slick spot,” he says.       

“Sometimes, the equipment may be cold or frozen. We turn our chute’s hydraulic pump on at least 30 minutes to an hour before we start to put cattle through the chute, to warm up the hydraulic fluid. If the fluid is cold and thick, chute speed slows down and timing can get thrown off when catching heads,” he explains.

Keep vaccine from freezing

            “Don’t let vaccines freeze, whether modified-live or killed,” says Daly. “Modified-live viruses are inactivated by freezing. Be careful with killed vaccines that contain adjuvants.” 

            “Freezing the adjuvants may create toxic compounds that could make animals sick,” he says.

            “Hot packs may be needed in the bottom of a cooler so nothing freezes.  I use hot water bottles in the bottom of a Styrofoam cooler, with holes in the top to stick pistol-grip syringes into when we aren’t using them. This keeps needles from freezing and syringe contents thawed without getting them too warm,” Daly says.

            Williams experimented with temperatures and vaccine in various kinds of coolers to see how long they would keep vaccine from freezing. 

            “I recommend hard Styrofoam coolers that are used for shipping vaccines or a regular hard-sided cooler. Soft-sided ones don’t hold the temperature long enough,” she says.

            Start with a warm cooler. 

            “Bring it indoors the night before. Or, to quickly heat a cold cooler, fill with hot water then dump the water out,” he says.  “Or use rice-filled heating pads warmed in a microwave. Put those in a cooler a while, to warm the inside.”  

If it’s 36 degrees outside, vaccine and syringes will be fine in a cooler because that’s the lower end of the desired window for vaccine temperature. 

“At 29 degrees, a pint of hot water in a good cooler will keep vaccine within proper temperature range for 4.5 hours. If it’s 13 degrees outside, we have about three hours before the pint cools, and it gets too cold inside the cooler, we might need to set the cooler inside a pickup with the heater running,” Williams says.  

            “Don’t put vaccines on the heater or defroster in a pickup window or they may get too warm.  It’s a fine line trying to keep vaccine within proper temperature,” she explains. “To tell if we are within that range, put a refrigerator thermometer in the cooler with the vaccine.” 

            “If it starts to drop below optimum temperature, put a new jar of warm water in the cooler. Sometimes it’s handy to use two coolers – one for syringes and vaccine bottles we’re filling from and the other for bottles we haven’t opened,” she says. 

            She continues, “Then we are not opening and closing that cooler all the time and it will retain proper temperature longer.”

            “Some people use propane heaters for keeping the work crew and equipment warm, but don’t expose vaccines to hot temperatures,” Daly warns.

“Temperature also affects pour-on products and antibiotics. Start with something that’s already at proper temperature and don’t let it freeze. If using a pour-on dewormer or delousing product administered via tubing, cold temps may freeze up the tube. Find ways to keep the tubing heated or insulated while working cattle. It’s much better to keep things from freezing than trying to thaw them,” says Daly.         

            Heather Smith-Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Please send comments on this article to

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