Common sense management necessary to minimize heat stress on livestock

Keep your animals cool during these long, hot days.

Both man and beast suffer the effects of high heat and humidity in the dog days of summer, so cattle and sheep producers need to adopt basic strategies to keep animals calm, cool and collected through the year’s hottest days.

“Actual temperatures are well into the nineties and heat indexes are very high,” said John Grimes, Ohio State University Extension beef coordinator. “Producers need to consider their daily management practices in order to minimize the stress resulting from current weather patterns to their beef herds.”

Coordinating animal movement and handling in the morning or evening hours is essential to minimizing heat stress for both livestock and human handlers. Working animals in the middle of the day, Grimes said, is a recipe for heat-related health issues.

Cattle aren’t the only animals affected by the summer sun. Sheep in Ohio also are raised predominantly outdoors in pasture-based production systems. Roger High, OSU Extension sheep coordinator, said farmers need to mind basic animal health principles to keep sheep comfortable.

“The big thing is that animals have plenty of water and that producers don’t move them in the hot part of the day,” High said.

Shade is also important to animal comfort, High noted, but all shade isn’t created equal.

“Sometimes shade in buildings or under manmade shelters is hotter than just being outside where they can get in the breeze,” High said. “When the animals concentrate in those areas, there may be a buildup of ammonia from their feces and urine, and it may actually be less healthy for the sheep than being out in the open air.”

While the recommendation may sound counterintuitive, he said when the animals are inside or grouped under shades, they cannot take advantage of a summer breeze to cool off.

Grimes also pointed out the importance of shade, and air circulation, to beef producers.

“Regardless if it is manufactured or from a natural source, shade is extremely important for cattle comfort,” he said. “In order to be effective, there needs to be 20-40 square feet of shade per animal and the height of the shade structure should be greater than eight feet tall to allow for sufficient air movement.”

Both experts agreed the single most important aspect of keeping animals healthy and productive during the summer is adequate water intake.

The minimum amount of water needed for an animal is essentially the amount needed for life processes like growth and lactation, and to replace what is lost by excretion in urine, feces, or sweat. Those water needs are influenced by environmental temperature, the production class of the animal, as well as the animal’s weight.

One issue unique to sheep producers: wool management.

“Timing of shearing is important because of the risk of sheep getting sunburnt,” High said. “If they’ve got 4-6 weeks of wool on them, they’re pretty well protected from the sun and should be fine.”

The bottom line for animal handlers of all stripes: keep animals well-fed and adequately-watered, and orient handling practices to the coolest times of the day.

Or, as High put it: “Just be sensible about what you’re doing.”

To read more about handling heat in livestock production, read the latest Ohio State University Beef Team newsletter.

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