January and February routinely bring the lowest temperatures and longest cold snaps to the Intermountain West. In Cache Valley and along the Wasatch Front, weather patterns and topography can combine to produce inversions that reduce air quality and lock in cold temperatures. For those working in agriculture, these conditions can endanger people and livestock. Many precautions can easily be taken to mitigate the risks of working and living in the cold, as well as practices for protecting animals.
Preparing land, maintaining equipment, and caring for livestock often necessitate long hours spent outdoors: even in the winter. Exposure to the elements, especially wind and moisture, can weaken the body’s ability to regulate temperature. Body composition, age, and pre-existing health conditions are among the most notable risk factors to consider during winter activity. To prevent hypothermia and frostbite, take care to:
A good rule of thumb is to assume conditions will become colder and wetter than they are when you start. Make sure to wear enough layers of insulating clothing and stay dry as much as possible. A warm hat, thick gloves, and waterproof footwear will protect your extremities, which are most susceptible to frostbite.
Eat wisely, and stay hydrated
A balanced diet with plenty of water will prepare your body for the rigors of outdoor activity.
Due to the added pressures of maintaining body heat and especially during inclement weather, people can become exhausted or fatigued much faster during the winter. Overexertion can increase the risk of hypothermia.
Everyday items such as tools can become more dangerous to use due to low temperatures. Avoid prolonged contact with metal objects on bare hands, and use extreme caution when handling fuels and solvents–especially gasoline–because their rapid evaporation has a super cooling effect that can cause instant frostbite.
An emergency preparedness kit in your vehicle is a must. A good winter kit should include blankets, matches, food, water, rain/snow gear, and dry clothes.
Pets and companion animals
Depending on the animal’s species, size, age, and general health, your pet’s tolerance for cold weather can vary widely. Even in its own lifetime, a pet’s capability to thrive in winter conditions may decline. If there is cause for concern, consider scheduling a visit with local veterinarians to evaluate your pet’s health and ensure a comfortable and enjoyable winter for all. Protect your pets’ health with these steps:
In addition to commonplace foods such as chocolate and onions that are toxic to dogs, antifreeze, medications, and deicers that pets may frequently encounter are toxic and should be kept out of their reach. During walks, your pet’s legs, belly, and paws can accumulate deicers or antifreeze that they may ingest through licking. Wipe down or wash your pets after possible exposure to these chemicals.
Ice, snow and water can collect in your pet’s coat or paws. This can dramatically reduce their body temperature after hours outdoors and can cause pain if left unattended. To prevent injury, help your pets stay dry and clean.
Most often, pets should be left at home to avoid time spent in cold cars or waiting outside without shelter. If you keep your dog outside, make sure the floor of its shelter is elevated off the ground and the door is facing away from the wind. Roaming pets can also become lost after snowfall interferes with their usual site and scent cues, so make sure they have a collar with up-to-date identification and/or a microchip.
Respond to signals
Animals will often convey discomfort, injury, or other harm through their behavior. By observing their daily habits and noting unusual or anxious activity, you can respond if a problem comes up. Also, make sure to maintain your pet’s healthy weight by feeding them well and note that animals kept outdoors require more calories to maintain safe body temperatures.
Shelter in vehicles
Wildlife and some pets may seek shelter from the cold in homes, sheds and vehicles, which can cause damage and endanger human and animal health. Read more about steps to prevent or deal with stowaways at tinyurl.com/extension-animal-shelter.
The animals we keep for food and labor also endure the harsh weather people experience. It’s wise to remember their everyday needs change in cold weather, in addition to providing for them in the event of special circumstances such as heavy snowstorms, extremely low temperatures, or illness.
Supply water at an appropriate temperature
Outdoor water sources can freeze over and dehydrate livestock, and animals will not drink enough water if it is near freezing. Tank heaters and heated buckets can help keep your animals well hydrated and healthy.
Provide adequate feed, especially protein
The colder the temperature, the greater the risk of loss–especially for vulnerable groups such as pregnant cows and young calves. In fact, a temperature drop of just a couple of degrees can increase an animal’s energy requirement tremendously. Pregnant cows, for example, require at least 2 pounds of crude protein per head per day, but extended exposure to low temperature may necessitate even more feed.
Check feed quality
Stored feed can often spoil due to lack of care. Spoilage reduces the energy and protein content in feed, which can have devastating effects on animal health. Young, old, and sick animals may require additional nutrients besides those supplied by general feed.
Maintain animals’ shelter
In addition to winter adaptations such as heavier coats and fat stores, livestock may occasionally require temporary shelter indoors or under cover as protection from wind and precipitation. Horses may require blankets, and these precautions should include check-ups to avoid infections. See USU Extension Veterinarian Karl Hoopes’ video with more information about caring for horses in the winter at https://tinyurl.com/extension-winter-horse-care.
More detailed information is available from the following online USU Extension Factsheets authored by Karl Hoopes (tinyurl.com/extension-cold-weather-horses), Jill Webster, S. Christian Mariger (tinyurl.com/extension-winter-safety), Clell V. Bagley (tinyurl.com/extension-cattle-losses), Levi Price and Nicki Frey, as well as from the American Veterinary Medical Association and its recommendations on cold weather animal safety (https://tinyurl.com/avma-cold-weather-animals).
For more information, contact Lynnette Harris with Utah State University Extension at firstname.lastname@example.org.