Cattle Shelter Guidelines
The provision of shelter allows cattle to better cope with the varying climatic extremes that can occur throughout the year and can increase their productivity.
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act
Cattle are kept in a variety of situations, ranging from extensive grazing to close confinement and housing. Whatever the form of husbandry, owners and managers have a moral and legal responsibility to care for the welfare of animals under their control. The basic needs of cattle - adequate food, water, air, shelter, treatment, comfort and the freedom to move and express normal behaviour patterns - must be met.
Section 9 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 defines cruelty offences and requires that proper and sufficient shelter is provided for animals.
Provision of shelter for cattle
Healthy cattle can tolerate a wide range of temperatures if they are acclimatised and have adequate feed and water. However, shelter can improve the welfare of the animal and reduce production losses. Animals without shelter need to put more energy into normal functioning and less into production.
Animals must be provided with shelter in times of above or below average temperatures. This can minimise the impact of climatic extremes and prevent suffering or possibly death.
Adverse weather includes climatic extremes such as low temperatures with wind and rain combining to impose a severe chill factor, the sudden onset of prolonged wet and windy conditions, or heatwave conditions with sudden or prolonged severe heat. Cattle need access to shelter from these conditions. Whether natural or manmade, animals will seek out appropriate shelter for the prevailing conditions.
The amount of shelter provided should be sufficient for all animals to access it at the same time, and stocking rates may need to be adjusted to allow this. This will prevent overcrowding around areas of shade or water.
Cattle lose heat primarily by respiration (from moist tissues in the respiratory system) as well as through transference of heat into the air and by evaporation of water from sweat.
Providing shelter enables cattle to shade from direct sun, reducing the extra heat load they take on (by up to 50 per cent). Heat stress and exhaustion should not occur if cattle are able to find shade and rest during the hottest part of the day.
Calves and pregnant cattle are more at risk of heat stress due to their lower heat threshold, as are animals with a history of respiratory disease due to a decreased ability to dissipate heat through panting.
In hot conditions where shade is available, cattle prefer to rest during the day and will spend the cooler parts of the day grazing.
If no trees are available, cattle will camp next to water such as dams or creeks during the day and feed at night. It has been demonstrated that cattle prefer shade over water in hot conditions and will spend more time resting and less time chewing their cud as ambient temperature increases.
Animals at highest risk of heat stress include:
- over fat stock
- young animals
- dark coloured animals
- high producing dairy cows
- sick animals or animals that have previous history of respiratory disease.
Appetite is reduced during extreme heat and can result in decreased daily weight gains and feed efficiency. Provision of good quality, highly palatable feed and plenty of shelter during periods of hot weather will reduce the heat load of the animals and assist in maintaining normal feed intakes. Any new feed should be gradually introduced to reduce the risk of acidosis or metabolic disease.
Research into dairy cattle production under heat stress demonstrates the welfare benefit and improved production where shade and shelter are provided. A study on the economic effects of heat loads on dairy cattle production in Australia has shown that extreme heat has the following effects on dairy production:
- reduced milk yield
- reduced milk fat and protein percentages
- lower first service conception rates
- lower calf birth weights
- larger number of services per pregnancy.
The effect of extreme heat was more pronounced for high producing cows, and resulted in reductions of up to 461 litres of milk per cow per year on farms that did not provide shade for their herds. A further study found that milk production was three per cent greater for shaded cows than for unshaded cows. Heat stress in dairy cows standing in the holding yard can be reduced with the use of sprinklers and the provision of shade during hot and humid weather.
Research also shows a higher mortality rate in calves subjected to heat stress in their first week of life. Cows may be observed trying to shade their calves and it has been shown that cows will actively seek sheltered areas in which to calve. Artificially reared calves must have access to shelter in hot weather with natural air flow important for cooling of the environment.
Shelter suitable during hot weather
The best type of shelter during extreme heat protects animals from the sun and allows for the cooling effect of the wind. Some options for shelter in hot weather are:
- constructed shelters using materials such as shade cloth, corrugated iron or timber
- shadebelts – these are usually a single line of deciduous trees, planted in an east-west direction to give shade on the south side The trees can be pruned to improve air movement
- trees with large canopies - planted individually in fields. Trees have a cooling effect due to absorption of heat by the leaves naturally undulating paddocks and gullies
- shelterbelts – thick hedges of trees usually fenced off from stock. Shelterbelts can provide good protection from the sun but should be thinned evenly to allow wind flow. Planting them in an east-west direction provides shade during the hottest part of the day.
The importance of clean fresh water during periods of extreme heat should not be underestimated. As a general rule dairy cattle drink somewhere in the range of 120-150 litres of water per day when producing about 20 litres of milk but. This requirement can increase by as much as 80 per cent on days over 35ºC.
Water sources should be familiar to animals before an extreme weather event, be close to shelter and be of sufficient volume to cope during periods of peak demand. The number of watering points and/or water flow should be increased if a large number of animals are kept together.
Wind chill and rain may reduce the animal's effective temperature to below its critical level, resulting in a decrease in weight gain and milk yield and increases in milk fat. For high risk animals the outcome may even be death.
Cattle at highest risk of cold stress include:
- newly born calves and calving cows
- animals in low body condition
- sick animals.
Appetite is stimulated by cold temperatures, and cold stress increases an animal's requirement for energy to maintain body temperature and functions. Studies suggest that a yearling's energy requirement may increase 2.5 fold during an extreme winter event. Where cold stress is likely, providing shelter (e.g. windbreaks) and increasing the availability of highly digestible and palatable feed will assist cattle to maintain normal body temperature and production - thus minimising the effects of cold stress.
Special shelter management may be necessary for calving cows and their calves. If required, small paddocks within a sheltered area along the edge of shelterbelts are useful.
Close regular observation should be carried out and any cow found down and unable to stand should receive appropriate treatment and be provided with shelter or be moved carefully to a sheltered area. Extra feed may be required to help the cow meet her own metabolic needs as well as the nutritional needs of the calf.
Calves are most at risk during cold weather due to their small size. They need to have good shelter provided, as even strong and healthy calves can die if exposed to adverse weather.
Decreasing temperature and increasing precipitation on the day of calving increases mortality, and calves born to heifers are particularly susceptible to adverse weather conditions.
Additionally, cold stress has been shown to decrease the rate of absorption of colostrum in newborn calves; thus compromising their immune system and contributing potentially to morbidity and mortality.
Pens used for rearing calves should have a draught-free covered area to protect calves from the elements, and paddocks should have shelter accessible to all calves.
Shelter suitable for extreme cold
- constructed wind breaks (cattle may also use wind breaks to rub up against and consequently the wind breaks will need to be structurally sound and safe)
- natural undulating paddocks and gullies
- shelterbelts are the best form of shelter against wind, with the 'shelter zone' spanning a distance about 14 times the height of the trees. If wind speed is reduced, cold stress is markedly reduced
- trees for protection from wind should be planted in a north-south direction to protect from north and south westerly winds.
The trees forming the shelterbelt should be spaced evenly and be semi-permeable in order to slow the wind without creating turbulence. Under-planting should be incorporated to prevent the wind being funneled through gaps at livestock level.
Pregnant cattle should not be grazed in paddocks where there are fallen branches of Macrocarpa, Western Yellow Pine or Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata) as these species are known to induce abortion if ingested.
Sheds (open on one side) erected in paddocks can afford protection from wind.
Temporary shelter can be provided in the form of shade cloths or plastic tarpaulins if other shelter is not available.
Shelter and water
Care should be taken when placing shelter near water so it does not result in animals camping around the water source, causing overcrowding and preventing animals from accessing water.
The number of watering points and /or water flow as well as the amount of available shade should be sufficient for the number of animals, and be increased if a large number of animals are kept together.
Animals in poor conditions (including cattle coming out of a drought), sick animals or those with a history of respiratory disease are especially vulnerable to the extremes of weather, and should be housed separately from the main mob to ensure preferential access to shelter and feed and expedited treatment. Without appropriate shelter these animals may die from the impact of adverse weather conditions.
Moving animals already under stress requires care and planning so it needs to be done well before an extreme weather event, to prevent further aggravation of the animal's condition.
Animals that have been injured in a natural disaster such as fire or flood need protection from the elements as they will be especially sensitive to the extremes of heat, sun or cold.
Stock showing signs of photosensitivity (sunburn) must have access to shade. Preventative measures are available for some types of photosensitivity, including facial eczema. Sunburnt stock will also benefit from veterinary treatment.
Feedlot cattle should be protected from extreme adverse weather conditions causing cold stress, heat stress or excessive heat load. Feedlot staff and management must be aware of the climatic conditions and the clinical signs in cattle that are associated with heat stress.
Feedlots must have in place plans for minimising the impact of hot and cold weather and dealing with heat and cold stress.
In relation to heat stress, the provision of shade or alternative means of cooling such as sprinklers and fans may be required.
In these conditions, cattle should be constantly monitored for signs of restlessness, decreased food intake, congregating/huddling around water troughs and, cessation of rumination, which would indicate thermal load stress requiring immediate preventative action.
Where cold stress predominates, shelter (e.g. windbreaks, mounding) and allowance for additional nutrient requirements should be provided.
When cattle are in holding yards, use should be made of artificial and natural shade to protect them from extremes of wind, heat and cold. Shelter is important for young animals (especially calves under two weeks of age) if they are left in yards for longer than two hours before transport and loading.
Transport of cattle should be planned so that climatic extremes likely to compromise their welfare are avoided.
In hot weather
If transport on days of extreme heat is absolutely necessary, the journey plan should minimise the effects of heat stress on animals with rest stops planned to be in areas of shade and perhaps a water source.
Animals should only be transported during the cooler hours of the day. If it is necessary to stop, park the vehicle in the shade and at a right angle to the wind direction to improve wind flow between animals during hot weather. Duration of stops should be kept to a minimum to avoid the buildup of heat while the vehicle is stationary.
Stocking densities should be reduced to 85 per cent of capacity to ensure good air flow between animals, and drivers should have contingency plans in place for adverse weather events.
In cold weather
If stock are being transported in very cold weather, vehicles may need to be halted and parked in a protected area to prevent wind chill and hypothermia in the animals. A trailer with a solid front must be used for young stock to reduce the wind chill factor.
The provision of shelter for cattle is an important management practice that has shown benefits such as improved growth rates and milk production and reduced mortality. Farmers, managers and those in charge of livestock have a responsibility to provide shelter so that the health and welfare of livestock is not compromised.
Remember: Provide shelter for all stock, identify areas of shelter on farm suitable for use during adverse weather events, and give special consideration to shelter for young, sick or pregnant stock.
The Bureau of Animal Welfare has produced this document in the interests of both animal welfare and as an information tool for cattle producers. This document should be read in conjunction with the Code of Accepted Farming Practice for the Welfare of Cattle (Victoria), available from the DEDJTR Customer Service Centre on 136 186.
Further information and resources to help you deal with heat stress in Australian dairy herds can be found at the Cool Cows website.
National Guidelines for Beef Cattle feedlots in Australia. ISBN 0 6430 5438 3
Animal Welfare - it's your duty to care.