Cow care in winter


10 min read

Cow health and comfort Cow lying time Providing a comfortable lying surface Assessing a muddy paddock Calving in winter Cow nutrition Cold stress Key takeaways Additional resources

A successful winter grazing system will take the cows’ experience into account alongside the environmental, financial and practical aspects of wintering. The following are focus areas for wintering and include an overview to cow health, lying time, calving surface, diet and body condition, and what to consider in prolonged wet weather. Ensure cows are in good body condition, as fat acts as insulation. Aim to put on body condition in early winter. Group dry cows based on their condition and calving date, enabling tailored feeding and protection from dominant cows. Keep an eye out for health issues and transition cows onto winter crops gradually to prevent illness.

Cow health and comfort

Winter preparation for cows is key to their health and productivity. Make the most of your crop through careful management and attention to detail. Early detection of a cow health problem will greatly increase the cow’s chance of recovery.

Cow wellbeing goes beyond providing food, water and health care. Consider important cow behaviours, such as lying down, rest, access to shelter, and how it affects their experience. Cows can be healthy and well fed, but still experience frustration and fatigue which impacts their overall wellbeing.

If your cows are cared for by a grazier over winter, you still have a responsibility for their welfare. Use the headings below as points to discuss with your grazier so both parties understand what’s expected.

Daily health checks

Daily health checks are crucial when checking cows on crops it's important to look out for lameness, injury, loss of body condition score, mastitis. Check calving conditions and keep an eye out for slipped or early calved cows. Watch for signs of fatigue, for example, cow head hanging low or shifting weight from side-to-side, these can indicate cows aren’t getting enough lying time.

Some of the signs of health issues that can occur on crops are:

Health Issue Observation
Metabolic disorder or mineral deficiency Wobbly, down, lethargic, or skittish cows.
Red water or SMCO poisoning

Red urine, weakness, diarrhoea,jaundice, decreased appetite and poor performance.


Protruding rumen, no longer grazing,reluctant to move, rapid breathing, staggering.

Photosensitivity Reddening and peeling of pink skin.
Woody tongue/tooth issue Tongue is swollen, and cow finds it painful to eat and drink.

Cow lying time

Cows are selective about the surface they’ll lie on. If the ground is wet, they’ll stay standing but become tired and experience a drop in well-being as a result. Cows will compensate for shorter lying times during bad weather by increasing their lying time when the weather and ground conditions improve.

Lying time in a grazed system is dependent on weather and ground conditions. Cows require a minimum of 8-10 hours of lying time per day and prefer 10-12 hours. It’s important to make sure conditions are good enough for them to lie down comfortably when they want to. This is a requirement of the Dairy Cattle code of welfare.

If swale, gullies and waterways are well managed and the soil type is suitable for wintering, cows will experience the majority of winter with a suitable lying area.

Results from a study on cow lying time conducted at the Southern Dairy Hub

As show in a trial completed at the Southern Dairy Hub in 2020, cow lying time is negatively impacted by rainfall events. Neave et al., 2022 – Behaviour of dairy cows managed outdoors in winter: Effects of weather and paddock conditions.

Look for lying 'bowls'

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Look for lying 'bowls'

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I know my cows are getting enough time resting if most of the cows are lying down when I check them in the afternoon, or if I can see lots of lying bowls where they have been lying.

Farmer tip

How do I provide a comfortable lying surface for cows during wintering?

Minimising the challenges around cow comfort and environmental management begins well before winter, with selecting the right paddock for planting. Have a plan for how you manage the herd and paddock when it no longer provides a comfortable lying surface.

Here are some suggestions for how you can do this:

  • Move the break fence regularly to provide fresh ground, as long as it does not result in the overallocation of crops and create potential nutritional risks. Feeding twice a day will improve feed utilisation and provide the opportunity to move cows onto drier ground.
  • Move the back fence to provide cows access to drier areas or sheltered areas in previously grazed parts of the paddock. Put it back in place once the poor weather has passed.
  • Protect the area closest to the feeding face by grazing animals into the prevailing weather conditions.
  • During prolonged periods of wet weather when paddocks become too wet and muddy, it’s important to have a contingency plan. Save drier areas, especially any with shelter, for your contingency plan. Move cows out of the paddock to drier paddocks or dedicated areas on the farm such as tussock blocks, shelter belts and off-paddock facilities.
  • Keep supplement feed and water troughs near the feeding face, not in any swales or hollows where it may create excess mud.
  • Roll out hay or straw for cows to lie down on.
  • If you have limited options, put cows that will be most affected by a period of poor weather (younger, lighter, earlier calvers) into paddocks with the most shelter, best soil condition or best feed.
  • Lanes and yards do not provide a comfortable lying surface unless covered with a comfortable rubber matting.

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Assessing a muddy paddock

It is important to provide a comfortable lying surface for all stock. Wet mud and surface water will affect the available lying area. Persistent rain over several days requires similar management to an adverse weather event.

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Management strategies for calving in winter

Include calving conditions in your wintering plan to ensure the whole farm team understands the level of care expected on your farm during winter.

Video: Calving in winter

Dairy farmer Luke Templeton shares his top tips for having a successful calving over winter.

Check calving conditions when winter grazing
Planning to calve in the right conditions is essential for cow and calf health. Avoid calving in muddy conditions to decrease the risk of death and infections for both the cow and the calf.

Mob cows by calving date
Grouping cows by calving date and removing them from crop paddocks well before calving will help protect cow and calf welfare. Remove animals from intensively grazed winter paddocks at least two weeks before their expected calving date. 

If a calf is born on crop, promptly collect and remove the calf and cow to a drier area. Know what you will do with a slip or early calver (include actions to take for cow and calf).

Providing the right environment for calving gives the best outcome for calves and dams.

Timed pregnancy diagnosis allows you to be well organised by identifying the animals closest to calving to move to the springer/calving area. Talk to your vet about dating pregnancies at scanning.

Be careful with low-protein feeds
Be careful in mobs fed fodder beet or high yielding swedes, as bagging, or springing up, is limited in cows on low-protein feeds. If feeding fodder beet, detail how you observe springing udders since cows might not bag up as much.

We pregnancy date scan our herd so that we know when each cow is expected to calve. Cows are drafted off the crop and into a pre-calving mob 10 days before their expected calving date, or earlier if they udder up.

Farmer tip

Cow nutrition 

Feeding on and off crop: Cows must be transitioned on and off winter crops to allow the gut bacteria time to adjust to a new feed source. If wintering on crop, increase the proportion of supplement for up to a week to allow the gut bacteria to adjust back to a pasture-based diet.

The last 3–4 weeks of pregnancy: During the last 3–4 weeks of pregnancy, provide the correct balance of nutrients such as energy, protein, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. This will improve ease of calving, calf survival, and the quality and quantity of their colostrum.

Cold stress: extreme cold and wet weather conditions

When designing your plan, consider the welfare of your cows and any potential environmental impact. Remember to factor in cold stress as it can have a greater impact on cows with low body condition score.

If a cow is clean and dry and there is little wind or rain, cold stress is rare until temperatures fall below -10°C.

The factors that increase the risk of cold stress are:

  • Combination of cold temperatures, rain and wind
  • Wet muddy ground conditions
  • Low body condition score
  • Low feeding levels
  • Sickness
  • No access to shelter

In poor weather, allow for decreased feed utilisation and increased energy demand. Depending on the BCS of the herd, and the weather situation, wet and windy conditions require an additional 0.5 – 3 kg DM/cow/day of intake.

Cows in good body condition are better able to withstand cold as the fat layer beneath the skin acts as an insulating layer. Body condition score the herd in autumn to make dry-off decisions, create winter mobs, and hit BCS targets at calving to improve cow performance the following season.

Our cows are wintered in BCS mobs, and then we redraft them into calving date mobs a couple of weeks before calving starts. For easy drafting, we tail paint our cows according to their calving date before they go to the winter crop.

Farmer tip

Key takeaways

  • Cows prefer 10-12 hours of lying time every day.
  • Calving in muddy environments can increase risks for calves and cows, so you should consider measures like grouping cows by calving date and removing them from crop paddocks well before calving.
  • If a cow is clean and dry and there is little wind or rain, cold stress is rare until ambient temperatures fall below -10°C.
Last updated: Apr 2024

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