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Dave Forgey
Dave Forgey
[Photo by T.L. Gettings]
Coping With Heat And Humidity
Offering small breaks during the coolest part of the day helps keep cows grazing.

By Dave Forgey, Logansport, Ind., forgraze@carlnet.org

Cows -- like humans -- are creatures of habit. The difference is, we are reasoning beings and cows aren't. This became very clear to me during and after the extremely humid weather we had in mid-June '94.

More than half of our pasture is across a county gravel road. It is not heavily traveled, but we are always cautious, as many people who travel the country roads don't know what a cattle-crossing sign means. In the evenings we always graze on the building side of the road so that one person can get the cows up the next morning without worrying about getting the cows across the road by themselves. We then graze across the road in the daytime.

It is our normal routine to hold the cows in a lot until daylight when we can safely cross the road in the mornings. We set up two breakwires the evening before so that the cows have a small area to graze as soon as they get to the paddock. They usually graze for 20 to 30 minutes, then lay down to wait for another break. Because of early morning dews, we keep the area small and continue to give breaks as the morning progresses.

Temporary fencing
To keep cows grazing
when it's hot, move
temporary fence often
to give them a new
break of fresh forage.
[Full screen view, 230K]
[Photo by T.L. Gettings]
During the mild weather of spring we would go to the paddock about every hour and give them another break. This always seemed adequate until June 13 when the humidity hit. That day they stopped grazing by 9 a.m. and just stood in a large group panting. By 11 a.m. we moved them to the barn and gave them hay, but they didn't eat any.

The next morning the hay was still in the bunks and the first cows milked ate a considerable amount of hay before we were ready to send them to the paddocks across the road. By 8:30 a.m., they had stopped grazing, so we again brought them back to the barn for hay. Since they wouldn't eat hay in the afternoon we decided on the third day to take them to the woods where there was adequate shade and water and leave them till afternoon milking. This lasted for ten days and we lost about 20 percent of their production.

After the humidity left, we still fed hay on the lot and the cows continued to eat after milkings. Production was not returning as we had expected. After another week it finally dawned on me what was happening. Although the hay was excellent quality, second-cutting alfalfa, it was not as lush as the pasture. So the cows' ration was not balanced as it had been when they were getting all their forage from pasture. Also digesting the hay took more time and energy, causing the cows to produce more heat. So we were actually making the heat and humidity worse by feeding hay.

We removed the hay entirely from the cows ration and they began to increase production immediately. Within ten days, we were within 3 percent of the cows' peak production. Since that time, we have had two spells of extreme humidity. They didn't last as long, but the cows stopped grazing in the daytime. By giving them more area to graze in the evening they didn't loose as much production and recovered faster.

I feel certain that the cows ate the hay only because they were confined after the morning milking and they were hungry at that time. It soon became a habit and they continued to eat it because it was there. When we removed the hay, they just laid down and waited for us to give them access to a paddock to graze. They again balanced their own ration and production returned. But we had to break their habit. There's nothing scientific to my research, but this is what I noticed and assumed during the hot, humid days of the summer of '94.

In '95, we saw some very unusually high temperatures and even higher humidity for mid-June here in Indiana. We had to change the way we were grazing to keep the cows eating at all during these hot days. Our cows were usually on pasture before 6:00 a.m. Again, we continued offering small breaks every couple of hours until the forage dried off, and then gave them the rest of the morning's supply of feed. In the evenings we would give the cows an entire paddock as they left the parlor.

With the humidity those days, we had problems keeping the cows grazing. With cows being creatures of habit you must force them to change when conditions change. We started milking earlier in the morning so that the cows could be in pasture at the first light. Then we had to stay in the paddocks to keep the cows up and grazing, or they would lay down till their normal time of grazing.

We gave smaller breaks much more often to keep the cows active. We found that most days the cows would not graze at all after 8:30 a.m. no matter what we did. We would finally just give them a clean shady spot in the woods with plenty of fresh water and let them alone.

Afternoons we had the same problem. The cows would find shady spots outside the parlor and just stand around. We found that even as it cooled down they would not move for a long time because comfort was more important to them than hunger. Our only solution was to drive them to the paddocks and keep them moving around so that they didn't bunch up. After awhile, they would realize that it also had cooled down in the paddock, and they would resume grazing.

During stress periods, you have to pay more attention to stockmanship. But then you should do that all the time. I don't believe the cows on pasture were any more stressed than cows on drylot. The one advantage they had was that they were in clean surroundings for a little while anyway.

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