Want to get a “feel” for how winter weather affects cow teat health? Think about how the tips of fingers look and feel on frosty days, says Leo Timms, Iowa State University extension dairy specialist.

Then factor in the effects of temperature fluctuations and milking, which exacerbate chapping and cracking and teat health can quickly deteriorate. Eliminating dips from winter routines is not the answer. However, limiting cold exposure, making proper dip choices and proper dip use can make a difference, said Timms to producers attending the National Mastitis Council meeting in early February.

Temperatures — both raw wind chills and temperature fluctuations — have the biggest impact on winter teat health. Therefore, control exposure to these weather factors as much as possible. Timms suggests using the following to help manage weather exposure:

  • Provide windbreaks if animals must go outside.
  • Feed and house cows indoors during cold weather as much as possible to avoid exposure to temperature swings that lead to teat cracks and other damage.
  • Avoid drafts in buildings by managing ventilation and door usage properly.
  • Avoid exposing animals to extreme wind chills post milking. If this cannot be avoided, take steps to minimize frozen teat dip on the ends of teats by blotting with a cloth towel after milking.

Stall and bedding management is critical, too. Cold weather does not eliminate the need for clean, dry stalls — it actually increases it. This is because wet bedding not only enhances body surface heat loss, it raises the risk of wet teats that are more vulnerable to chapping, cracking and freezing, notes Timms.

Make sure your milking equipment and milking routine maintain their cow-friendly status. Practice routine maintenance to keep systems operating at peak efficiency. And monitor vacuum levels and pulsation rates so that unit on-times are not extended. This prolongs teat stress from milking, leading to more winter teat problems because teats are already exposed to challenging weather conditions. “Excessive machine on-time is the greatest risk to winter teat health,” says Timms.

Finally, use procedures and products that maximize teat disinfection and skin condition while minimizing irritation or trauma during your milking routine. “It’s a bad idea to quit dipping, because teat ends are still wet after milking and there is an increased dehydration and cracking risk,” Timms says. “Instead, use the same good germicide, skin conditioning dip you’ve been using.” Do not consider adding more conditioners as that only dilutes the product, which weakens its germicidal capacities.

A variety of new products are specifically designed for winter use. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each, including cost and potential returns, before using. For example, high emollient dips minimize initial freezing risks post milking due to slow evaporation. However, teats may stay wet and oily longer, which may increase risks with prolonged cold exposure or dirty environmental conditions.

According to Timms’ research, although winter dips don’t completely mitigate cracking and chapping, “they do seem to help.” Just make sure the product used contains a skin conditioning agent and proven germicide. And be sure to blot teat ends dry with a cloth towel when cold exposure is great.

The key is to know what level of abnormal teats is normal for your dairy, and understand that nothing can totally prevent cracking in winter. “Don’t make rash decisions, but do follow proper procedures,” he adds. “People are the controlling factor in managing teat health.”