Caring for a Dairy Cow in the Winter

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People are often surprised to hear that we have a dairy cow in Alaska. And we aren’t the only ones. Caring for a dairy cow in the winter does require some extra work. Here are some ways to keep them happy and healthy until spring.

Brown cow with snowflakes on her face

We have had our first dairy cow for three years now so this is her third winter with us. We got her from a friend in southern Alaska and drove her seven hours north to where we live. Last fall she blessed us with a perfect heifer calf. You can read all about our cows in these posts.

This is our second winter having both of the cows and we’re often asked how they manage during the long, cold, dark winters. The answer is…just fine! Cows can withstand temperatures below zero. With a few extra steps to ensure their health and comfort, our cows thrive.

It’s not always easy, however. Being outside taking care of them and milking at below zero temperatures can be uncomfortable. Dealing with several feet of snow in heavy winter clothing is also hard work. But we do it because we love our cows and love having fresh milk for our family. Here are the ways we make it through winter with our cows.

Feeding Dairy Cows in Winter

Nutrition for dairy cows is always incredibly important, no matter the time of year. But during the winter months when the cows don’t have access to fresh grass, it’s even more so.

Feeding dairy cows high-quality hay is the first priority. Poor quality, moldy hay won’t keep cows healthy during strenuous winter months. And make sure to have plenty of it. You never know when weather conditions will prevent you from picking up a supply of hay when you’re running low.

We also feed our cows a little bit of grain to help give them the energy needed to stay warm and active in the cold. I won’t get into a debate about grain here! We feed it to our cows because here in Alaska, it’s essential to their well-being, and that’s all that matters.

Other supplements such as protein licks, salt, and baking soda (or whatever else your cow might need) should also be given. Simply monitoring your cow every day will tell you how they are coping with the weather. Adjustments should be made to feed and supplements if the cow begins to look unhealthy.

Two brown Jersey dairy cows standing in the snow outside of a barn

Water for Dairy Cows in Winter

This is one of the most difficult chores when it comes to caring for any livestock during the winter. At least here in Alaska when the temperature gets below zero often. Dealing with the hose, spigot, heaters, timers, and extension cords in the dark at -18 isn’t always fun!

However, water is an absolute necessity for all animals and especially for cows in milk. Keeping their water trough full and thawed all winter long is incredibly important. Cows drink several gallons of water each day and need to have constant access to it. Here are some tips:

  • Have a good quality, large livestock water trough that can withstand freezing temperatures. The more water it holds, the less often it will need to be filled, which isn’t a fun chore in the winter. We have a 75-gallon trough for our two cows and fill it every couple of days.
  • Purchase a high-quality hose that is designed to work in freezing temperatures. We keep our hose in our heated garage and pull it out right when we’re ready to fill the trough so it doesn’t freeze up while waiting. Always make sure the hose is completely drained before coiling it up and putting it away.
Person spraying water into a livestock water trough in winter
  • Choose a water heater according to the size of your trough. We like the ones that sink to the bottom, our cows don’t mess with it at all. Always be careful with extension cord placement so the cows can’t get to it.
  • Monitor the water level daily as well as the heater to make sure it’s working properly. We’ve gone down to the barn to find ice forming on top of their water which alerts us to a possible power outage or issue with the timer.
  • We keep all of our water heaters on timers. They don’t need to be on constantly to keep the water thawed so we have found one hour on then one hour off to work perfectly. The water stays thawed and warm enough, too, since cows shouldn’t be drinking freezing cold water.
Brown Jersey cow looking into water trough with water heater on the bottom

Shelter for a Dairy Cow in the Winter

We are fortunate enough to have a barn on our property. The cows’ stall has a door that leads out to their fenced-in pasture. We leave this door open 24/7, unless there’s a very bad storm then we close them in at night. They can roam freely inside and out as they please.

If you don’t have a barn or similar structure, the cows will do just fine outside all of the time. However, it would be nice for them to at least have an overhang or somewhere to seek shelter from high winds, heavy snow, and ice.

Of course, there are plenty of times that our cows, although able to go inside, prefer to hang out outside in the snow!

Barn door open with a brown Jersey cow looking out the door

Tips for Caring for a Dairy Cow in the Winter

  • Watch out for ice! Cows can slip easily on ice and a fall could be disastrous. If ice forms causing a slippery spot, use a pick ax or similar tool to rough up the surface or break it up and remove it.
  • Keep their coat nice and clean with regular brushing. I brush Honey prior to each milking and the girls take turns keeping Buttercup brushed as well. Their coats are soft and thick during the winter to help keep them warm but can get matted with frozen poo easily.
Young girl walking a small brown cow in the snow
  • Dry, clean bedding should be in an area where they can lay down and chew their cud. Hay that they discard works as well as straw.
  • Milk production will naturally decrease during the winter as their bodies are using extra energy to keep themselves warm. You will still enjoy plenty of milk though.
Brown Jersey dairy cow standing in snow with trees in background

Don’t let concerns about cold weather detour you from your dairy cow dream. Although it’s important to weigh all of the factors and know what the challenges will be, it can be done. Dairy cows can thrive in a cold, snowy environment with a little extra care and work from you.

Pinterest pin image of a dairy cow in snow

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