Made in the Shade: Cattle perform better when they can get out of the sun
Food, water, shelter. They’re considered the most basic of necessities for humans; do they also apply to cattle? Studies throughout the last decade have indicated that shade increases the comfort and productivity in cattle, whether that is through weight gain, milk production, or fertility.
When Wisconsin beef cattle producer Vince Hundt started rotational grazing, he began to feel that his cattle couldn’t get a reprieve from late summer heat coupled with humidity that can reach 100 percent in his state.
“It became apparent these animals need shade. They are beef animals that stay out there 24/7 being tortured by the sun,” Hundt said. “I went on the internet and googled around, and, to my surprise, there was nothing to supply shade. It was obviously a need and an opportunity.”
Hundt enlisted the help of his son’s friend Guthrie Knapp, who had, at the time, just graduated with a degree in architecture, to design a large sun shade for his cattle. Knapp and an engineer Peter Berquist built their first shade in the summer of 2012, and Shade Haven was born. The next summer, they built two more and have been expanding ever since.
“They’re scattered all around North America; they’re just remarkably successful as a product and an idea,” Hundt said.
Shade Options for Grazing Cattle, a study conducted by University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, explored parameters in which heat stress decreases the productivity of cattle. While humidity is generally far less prevalent in arid western states, high temperatures can still have detrimental affects.
The graphic indicates that at zero relative humidity, producers should be alert at 94 degrees and be wary of danger at 105 degrees. At approximately 20 percent relative humidity, 90 degrees becomes the alert zone, 95 within the danger zone, and approximately 105 degrees becomes an emergency. As humidity levels increase, the temperature decreases for prevalent danger to livestock.
When a cow’s temperature increases, a few things happen. It eats less, the bare minimum, allowing the body to cool down again, but this, in turn, limits the amount of weight gained, affecting reproduction, milk production, and the gain in calves still at the cow’s side.
Dianne Hodge, a beef producer in south central Nebraska, created her own sun shade using posts, tarps, and nylon sheeting for her bums and saw one big change in her calves.
“They eat throughout the day as well,” Hodge said. “Normally when calves had no shade, they ate in the evenings and nights only. Once I got the shade up I noticed they would eat more often throughout the date partly because their feeder was under the shade as well, which probably helped with weight gain.”
Her calves actively sought the shade, she said, between 11 a.m and 6 p.m.
Animals provided shade in the study performed by U of K gained far more than animals without shade. To be specific, cows gained 1.24 lbs per day over those without shade, calves gained .41 lbs more per day, and steers gained .89 more per day.
The ideal temperature for beef cattle is between 41 and 77 degrees, at which point “cattle may begin to experience heat stress depending on a number of environmental factors, including relative humidity, solar radiation, wind speed, water, and diet,” the study states. “Signs of heat stress, such as increased water intake, may be subtle and therefore difficult to recognize.”
Cattle naturally gravitate toward shade, Hundt said, and by using a Shade Haven, which can be readily moved by a few people or a vehicle without needing to be folded in, cattle can better avoid heat stress. It doesn’t need to be folded in to clear most gates, though it may need to be folded in during inclement weather and high winds.
“The advantages, especially for people trying to finish grass fed beef, are pretty important,” said beef cattle producer and Shade Haven user Jim Munsch. “You’re fighting energy all the time. These cattle take energy to stay cool.”
Two models of Shade Haven are available, a 40-foot span, 1200 square foot model, available at $17,900, and a 30-foot span, 600 square foot model for $11,900. Both have a warranty of five years from the company and have been tested in about 35 mph winds with gusts around 40 to 45 mph. One person can open it in a matter of minutes.
“Everybody’s got to work the numbers out for themselves,” Munsch said. “There’s the first cost of these things, and they don’t take much extra work if you are using a managed grazing system. You have to justify it for how many animals you have and what you’re gaining from it.”
Trees are a viable option for providing shade to livestock, but, of course, they have limitations. By strategically positioning a portable sun shade, nutrients from cattle waste and urine is spread where the producers desire it be distributed.
“In proper rotational grazing, there’s no place for trees; you don’t want them,” Hundt said. “If you have a paddock that has a tree in it, cows are going to hit the grass and spend all day under the tree, then the tree is going to get phosphorous and nitrogen and get choked out and die, and the grass will get none.”
Cattle don’t need to be under shade for the entire day or even half a day to see the benefits of shade. Upon observing his cattle, Hundt watches them rotate through and get about a half an hour to and hour of shade and rotate through, so the 1200 square foot model can adequately provide shade for about 100 animals, though they likely won’t be under it the entire time.
Those who conducted the U of K study recommend 30 to 40 square feet per head for beef cattle, 20 to 25 square feet per head for feeder cattle, and 15 to 20 feet per head for calves.
“We’ve got black cattle, and they seem to be more comfortable in shade,” Munsch said. “If there’s a treeline, they go to it. It’s obvious what they’re telling me; they prefer shade. If they’re comfortable, they going to perform better. They are spending less time struggling with the heat, and more time eating and ruminating.”
Feeding Systems, LLC., of Columbus, Nebraska, invented their own cattle shade, though in a slightly different format. Their four-post design sets into a concrete base, which is included, and the entire shade is 40’ by 40’.
“The shade is 15 feet in the air, which allows for tractors to get up underneath it, and your blueprint of shade is larger,” said Dana Ienn, Feeding Systems, LLC. sales manager. “You’re getting more shade for your bang when its up higher. In the wind, it can handle up to 95 mph. The 71 or 72 percent shade allows enough air to go through but offers enough shade. A greater weave doesn’t allow air to go through and is more apt to have wind rip tarp.”
Their sun shades sells for $7,650 per shade, including the base, which can be moved by a tractor.
Registered Angus producer Jason ZumBrunnen of ZumBrunnen Angus has considered providing shade to his livestock on his ranch north of Lusk, Wyoming, which provides no natural coverage for his animals.
“I’m always on the lookout for new technology, and I think shade is a great idea,” he said. “They don’t eat when they get hot, but would if you can get them cooled down.”
ZumBrunnen has shied away from Shade Haven for the fear that strong Wyoming winds would consume far before its time.
“I saw the wind loading is for 50 mph, and we get bigger gusts than that,” he said. “I know the performance of cattle increases dramatically with shade. I would just hate to buy one and the wind blows it over in the first year.