Feburary’s bitter weather many have caused some animals to have tissue damage

February’s polar vortex was a nightmare for many livestock producers in the Ozarks.

During cold events, animals can suffer from frostbite, which is damage to body tissues that occurs when the tissues freeze. Newborn calves are most at risk because they are wet and have a large surface area in relation to their total body mass. Calves can not maintain temperature the first several hours of life, and their circulatory system is less able to respond to cold changes than more mature animals, resulting in frostbite.

“You’ll probably see a lot of calves in a few weeks that were born in the coldest weather that have already lost, or show signs they’ll lose, the tips of their ears and possibly their tails; mostly the tips of both extremities are affected,” University of Missouri Livestock Field Specialist Eldon Cole said. 

Frozen ears and tails result in changes in cattle appearance, but cattle performance significantly. 

Initial signs of frostbite include a cold stiffness to the tips of these body parts. As the days go on, the affected parts become hard and leathery before they separate from the healthy tissue and simply fall off.

Frostbite can also affect the hooves of animals. Cole said producers in the Ozarks generally not encounter many issues with frostbitten hooves, but the February blast brought subzero temperatures and windchills that dipped below negative 20, so there may be a few cases. If the feet are involved, the animal is very reluctant to rise but appears otherwise healthy with a normal appetite. 

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for frostbite in hooves, and the best solution is to euthanize the animal.

Cole added that not all cases of cattle with sore feet are caused by frostbite.

“In toxic fescue country, like we have around here, we can expect to see some fescue foot show up in adult animals. Owners need to watch for lameness in the rear hoof-leg region,” Cole said. “They will be slow-moving, can be swelling in the lower leg, and in advanced cases, there will be a break in the skin, usually around the top of hoof and the dewclaws. Of course, the real culprit is the toxin ergovaline, which reduces blood circulation to the extremities. The toxin possibly could have been ingested several weeks before the cold snap in pasture or hay.”

Fescue foot doesn’t show up in all animals, usually about 10 to 25 percent. It will also result in lost tail switches in the next couple of months.

“I’m sure frostbite is painful, especially if it’s connected to fescue foot,” Cole said. “Cattle can lose a hoof or two also, and once the skin break occurs, they are beyond recovery.”

Mature animals can also suffer from frostbite during brutal winter conditions. 

“Occasionally teats of a recently calved cow freeze, resulting in mastitis and frequently loss of milk production in at least one-quarter of the udder,” Cole said. “Adult animals may experience scrotal or teat frostbite. Once again, the degree of injury will vary on how protected they are from the wind, wet and muddy bedding areas. I see some scrotal scabs on the bottom of the scrotum after most winters, but our extremes this year will likely worsen that. Unless they are extreme, many of those bulls won’t be affected as far as their bull breeding soundness (BSE) exams are concerned The more extreme BSE-freeze-related concerns may be seen in Brahman and Brahman crosses. Those problems will not affect just the scrotum but can damage the prepuce and penile area.”

According to information from the University of South Dakota, spermatogenesis (creation of sperm) in a bull is 61 days. Anything that affects sperm production will take 61 days to totally clear the system, to have normal cells and healthy sperm again after the bull recovers. It may take several months for full recovery, and a few bulls remain permanently infertile.

Spring is on the way to the Ozarks, but producers should use February 2021 as a lesson in how to prepare for future cold-weather calving.

“If they’re not brought into a warm area immediately after birth and off and warmed up, there’s not much you can do to prevent the freezing,” Cole said. “There are calf warming boxes some farmers use, but most probably stick them in the truck cab or take them to the house for a while. Of course, getting them dry is just a start. They also need to nurse ASAP to get their insides warmed up with colostrum.”


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