Some of the Guernseys Dairy cows at Kabarak Farm Dairies in Nakuru on August 7,2023. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Dear Dr Othieno, I am a dairy cow farmer who also keeps goats and sheep. This year has been extremely cold. To cope, as human beings, we have been forced to change our dress code and diet. I was wondering, as livestock farmers how can we help our animals cope? Are there any specific disease conditions we should expect during this cold weather?

[Emmanuel Kanyari, Nakuru County]

Dear Kanyari, Thank you for that timely question. Animals just like us human beings, work to maintain a constant body temperature. This temperature varies across species. Normal body temperature for a cow ranges between 36- 39 degree celsius while that for goats vary between 38- 40 degrees celsius. This is certainly much higher than the ambient temperature otherwise commonly known as room temperature of an average of 21 degrees celsius. Animals have thermoregulatory mechanisms that maintain this temperature within this narrow range. In high environmental temperatures animals sweat to dissipate excess heat and in cold, they will shiver to generate heat and stabilise the body temperature.

How do animals adapt to cold weather?

Faced with cold stress, animals will change their behaviour and will for example seek shelter to avoid the cold. Physiologically the animal will grow long hair coat to provide insulation against cold weather although this may not occur as fast. Animals will also put on more weight ahead of cold weather conditions. Animals will also increase their metabolic rates to help in production of more heat; this may subsequently reduce milk production in lactation cows.

Heat and cold stress

Now both extremes in environmental temperatures are stressful to the animal otherwise called heat and cold stress. Cold stress arises when an animal's body temperature drops because their natural metabolic processes and their body coat are not enough to maintain the body temperature within the normal range.

Disease incidences

Sadly, cold stress can predispose an animal to a number of diseases if the farmer does not assist the animal to adopt. Cold weather is a predisposing factor to respiratory conditions. Expect a higher incidence of pneumonia. The cold conditions can also predispose an animal to foot conditions for example foot rot. The cold stress during this period normal reduces the body immunity and therefore predisposing animals to many diseases.

What should farmers do?

Inasmuch as animals can tolerate extreme temperatures, a farmer has a role to play. You need to offer good nutrition, fresh water and proper shelter. Ensure the animals hair coat is clean and dry to offer the much-needed heat. A farmer should give good nutrition to the animal prior and during cold seasons to ensure animal adds weight to fat reserves.

Animals will need more calories to keep themselves warm in cold weather, especially those with poor body condition. Consider sorting out thin animals to provide them more specialised care such as a higher energy ration and less crowded, draft-free shelter.

Call in your veterinary doctor to advise on a feeding regime. Great care should be given to young and sick animals as they may not adopt well to extreme weather conditions.

Provide a shelter for animals to get them out of the element's way.

Provide deep, clean, dry bedding to help keep the animals warm. A clean dry hair coat provides good insulation as compared to a dirty, wet hair coat.

Be on the lookout for any disease conditions like pneumonia. Reduction in milk production is a common occurrence during cold weather and may not be a clinical sign of a disease as is common during normal times. A lot of body energy goes to metabolism to raise the temperature hence the subsequent drop in milk production.