Winter Care for the Family Milk Cow

Winter Care for the Family Cow

The green pastures of summer are but a memory and winter has taken it’s hold. Caring for a dairy cow in the winter has its own set of unique challenges. If you want to keep the milk flowing you need to meet these challenges head on and take a proactive approach.

Feed and Nutrition

When the pasture is lush and green and there is plenty of it, it is easy to produce large volumes of milk from the family cow. Once the grass is gone, every year without fail, I get emails from people whose cows have almost quit giving milk. My first question for them is about forage quality. When dairy cows are primarily eating hay, it needs to be high quality hay. High quality hay is hay that is cut early and is palatable. Often, I find out that the problem is related to the cattle eating poor quality hay, late cut grasses that were harvested well past their prime. If you are stuck feeding this kind of forage, you need to supplement their diet if you want them to keep producing milk. You will have to feed some grain or sprouted fodder to make up the difference. Always watch your cattle’s body condition and be ready to adjust your feeding plan to address any problems.

Make sure your cow gets all she wants to eat. The average Jersey cow will eat about 50lbs of dry matter a day. Cattle that stay outdoors in subfreezing weather will consume even more. The best way to keep a cow milking is to make sure she has all the forage she can eat. If there is nothing left in her feeder at the next feeding, you haven’t fed her enough.

It is also important to make sure that you feed supplemental minerals during the winter season. Many minerals, vitamins, and trace elements that cattle get from fresh green grass are not readily available in hay. The best way to meet these needs is by feeding Redmond salt and kelp.

Shelter and Bedding

Dairy cattle need a dry place out of the wind to rest. When a cow is laying down and chewing her cud, she is making milk. You want to encourage such activity! Having a dry, well bedded stall also prevents mastitis (which can be easily contracted in wet/dirty environments). At the very minimum, your milk cow should have a windbreak of some kind. Cold winds really take their toll on a cow. If you don’t provide enough shelter you had better make sure that her energy requirements are met, which will mean feeding some corn meal. Cows make the most milk when they are comfortable and the wise husbandman strives to keep them that way.


Since milk is 94% water it is important to make sure your cow has enough water. In the winter, freezing temperatures make it challenging to keep fresh, clean water available. If you water your cow with a stock tank, be sure to keep the ice chopped open or better yet install a stock tank heater. Without a heater, the ice keeps building up on the sides of the tank and your capacity is diminished. It is also important to make sure the water source is reliable. All water pipes that have the potential to freeze should be insulated and have heat tape installed. This will keep you from the drudgery of hauling water from the house 3 times a day!


When cows are on pasture, they keep themselves relatively clean. In the winter, not so much. One thing you can do to help keep your cow clean is to “stable clip” her. Stable clipping a cow means clipping her flanks and udder hair with a set of cattle clippers. Shorter hair on the flanks makes manure less likely to stick. Manure that does stick can be removed with a curry comb. Cattle should be brushed every day, it keeps them clean and they enjoy it.

Hopefully, some of these ideas will help you make it through the winter with your sanity and jug of milk. Spring will return again and life will get easier. Until then…

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