Battling Heat Stress: Cattle Symptoms, Condition Causes and Prevention Strategies 

heat stress cattle

Heat Stress Cattle

Raise your hand if you enjoy heat and humidity. If you are in production agriculture, specifically in the livestock business, chances are those hands will remain at your side or maybe tucked deep inside your pockets. Summer’s high heat and humidity bring extra challenges to livestock producers when it comes to overall health and performance.   

Summer brings multiple challenges to cattle producers, including but not limited to insects and heat stress. Cattle are more resilient than we often think. However, the combination of heat and humidity can still wreak havoc on the health of your herd.   

What is heat stress?  

Heat stress occurs when the animal’s ability to release heat becomes inhibited due to the overwhelming high temperatures. Typically heat stress isn’t caused by excessive heat alone; but is also triggered by high humidity and a decrease in air movement. Livestock, like humans, are most comfortable in their thermoneutral zone.  

“The Thermoneutral Zone (TNZ) is the environmental temperature range in which the least effort is required by an animal to regulate body temperature. In the TNZ, an animal is most comfortable, has the fastest growth rate, and achieves the most efficient feed-to-gain ratio. This temperature zone is highly variable and depends on factors such as species, humidity, time of year, age, acclimation, amount of fat or hair coat insulation, level of production, wind, and other factors,” according to a Washington State University Extension Fact Sheet.   

How Heat Stress Cases Vary 

It’s important to point out that when discussing heat stress cattle response varies by geographical location and even breed makeup. 

“The unfortunate part is everybody’s situation is different based on regional climate differences,” said Chris Cassady, Ph.D., Director of Beef Technical Sales at BioZyme® Inc. 

“Where a backgrounder in Texas might have to deal with severe heat for seven months, someone in North Dakota might have extreme heat for just two months. However, the commonality is understanding the cascade of events that go on with heat stress – symptoms to look for and what to do.”  

Signs of Heat Stress  

During the summer months especially, producers should take extra care to look over their livestock on a regular basis to monitor factors that can lead to heat stress. Watch for behavioral and physical signs that your animals could be experiencing heat stress so you can effectively mitigate it before it turns from bad to worse.  

Heat stress in cattle can have significant implications for their health, productivity and well-being, especially during hot and humid weather conditions. Recognizing the signs of heat stress in cattle is essential for implementing timely interventions to prevent heat-related illnesses and losses.  

Increased Respiration Rate 

The first visible sign of heat stress you should look for is an increased respiration rate. Excessive or rapid panting, with extended periods of open-mouth breathing, is a sign of heat stress. Cattle that show this increase in respiration rate, will have increased air volume intake, which can ultimately lead to other sicknesses. With increased air intake, animals are inhaling more dust, dirt, bacteria and viruses into their bodies, which can quickly lead to bigger problems. Elevated respiratory rates indicate the animal’s effort to cool down and maintain thermal equilibrium. 

Seeking Shade, Shelter & Water 

When battling heat stress cattle often tell you what they need. The most common sign of heat stress is animals seeking out shade and water during the peak heat of the day. This disrupts the normal feeding pattern of continuously grazing and consuming smaller meals.  

That distraction shifts to night grazing and slug feeding where they eat more at once due to increased hunger. Slug feeding leads to acidosis and bloat in ruminants, which can lead to more health issues or death. When they bunch up during the day, they also are more likely to be exposed to sickness because of shared germs – think of containing school kids in an enclosed room with no fresh air.  

Heat-stressed cattle may seek shade, shelter or cool, shaded areas. This is to escape direct sunlight and reduce heat exposure. Providing adequate shade structures and shelter options can help mitigate the effects of heat stress. 

Cattle experiencing heat stress may increase their water consumption to maintain hydration and regulate body temperature. Providing access to clean, fresh water is crucial during periods of heat stress to prevent dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. 

Decreased Feed Intake 

Heat-stressed cattle may reduce their feed intake due to decreased appetite and metabolic heat production. Reduced feed consumption can lead to decreased nutrient intake and weight loss, impacting overall productivity and performance. 

Other Signs & Symptoms 

Other typical signs include lethargy, drooling, aimless wandering or staggering and—in severe cases—ultimately death. In addition, increased body temperature and increased heart rate are also symptoms of heat stress.

Cattle struggle to hide these symptoms, so recognizing these signs early allows producers to implement proactive measures. This can alleviate heat stress and minimize its impact on animal health and performance. 

Implementing management practices to reduce heat load are critical for mitigating the effects of heat stress in cattle

Effects of Heat Stress  

It’s worth mentioning that some effects of heat-stressed cattle aren’t immediately obvious. They can be long-lasting and detrimental to the overall health of your herd. 

Heat stress can detriment the herd both from a performance and reproductive standpoint. Animals that are not eating or grazing are not gaining. Heat stress can cause shorter gestation lengths, resulting in lighter birth weights and immune-compromised offspring.   

Extreme heat is a major cause of poor reproductive performance. Females can face problems initiating and maintaining pregnancy. The males can become sterile and also experience a lack of libido.   

Prevention and Treatment  

When tackling heat stress, cattle provide valuable information about what they need. Now, preventing heat stress before it happens is ideal. However, in some cases you will need to treat the specific symptoms of heat stress cattle are dealing with. 

Treatment is often the same as preventative measures but with more care and caution. Let’s explore some of the ways to mitigate and treat heat stress  

Keep Cattle Hydrated 

The first step in alleviating heat stress is to provide plenty of clean, fresh, cool water. Keeping your cattle hydrated is critical in preventing heat stress since dehydrated animals have problems maintaining body temperature.

If you provide plenty of water sources, spread them across several areas to help eliminate the crowding of animals at one particular location. Also, keeping water under shade will help keep the animals gathered under the shade.  

Limit Working During the Day 

Don’t work your cattle during extreme heat. If you need to work your livestock, plan any work as early in the morning as possible before the day heats up. Working animals causes stress and combined with heat stress can cause serious issues. If you need to transport your livestock, do so early in the day or later in the evening when the temperature cools.  

Provide Shade 

Sometimes trees are enough to help eliminate heat stress. Cattle grazing in a large open area where trees are not an option might need some man-made shade structures. If you have a building that serves as shade, make sure it has proper ventilation and circulation like a fan. An enclosed structure with minimal air movement will only contribute to your animals’ heat.   

Adjust Feeding Times  

Digestion contributes to increased body heat, therefore, heightening the chances of heat stress. Wait until later in the day for your afternoon feeding, and if you only feed once per day, do that feeding in the early afternoon.   

Other Nutritional Considerations  

Finally, keeping AO-Biotics® Amaferm®in your cattle diets, especially during summer temperatures, is especially beneficial for eliminating heat stress. Amaferm is a prebiotic research-proven to enhance digestibility.  

“Feeding Amaferm during heat stress has multiple benefits, including improved digestibility, increased energy availability, improved rumen function and decreased loss of performance. The improved digestibility observed with Amaferm provides more energy to the animal during heat stress when intake is reduced,” Dr. Cassady said. 

Amaferm is found in VitaFerm® products, a line of nutritional supplements for beef cattle that maximizes energy and forage utilization for successful production. 

VitaFerm Offers HEAT® Technology 

In addition to the benefits that Amaferm offers to assist with overall health and digestion in helping alleviate heat stress. Cattle can also benefit from HEAT technology found within many of the VitaFerm products. 

HEAT® technology combines essential oils and garlic to support animals when heat and insects are a challenge. HEAT provides capsaicin to help maintain circulation and support animal performance in both heat and fescue situations. Capsaicin and Amaferm are both research-proven to help maintain body temperature. HEAT also contains garlic to help deter insects. Keeping insects controlled is important to heat stress because insects like to gather on animals when they bunch up. Insect bites cause added stress and economic losses.  

A lowered body temperature has several key benefits. It helps get the females in the herd bred and keeps them bred. It helps keep those animals out grazing, which means the potential for gaining is greater, even in warmer climates.  


Products with the HEAT technology are tailored to specific production phases that should be used for anytime temperatures reach hotter than 70 degrees.  These include: 

VitaFerm Concept•Aid® 5/S HEAT, a premium free-choice 5% phosphorus vitamin and mineral supplement for beef cattle designed to support reproductive success. Use when temperatures are above 70 degrees or when cattle are grazing fescue. 

VitaFerm Concept•Aid 5/S HEAT with ClariFly®,  a premium free-choice 5% phosphorus vitamin and mineral supplement with ClariFly for beef cattle. It is designed to be fed when temperatures are above 70 degrees or when cattle are grazing fescue to support reproductive success. 

VitaFerm HEAT Stress Tub, a tub for cattle designed to support digestive health and intake when temperatures are above 70 degrees. Formerly known as Vita Charge HEAT Stress Tub. 

Watch for more products with the HEAT technology to be introduced this year as we enter into the hot and humid season. 

Want more VitaFerm Information? 

Raise your hand if this article provided you with some great insight into heat stress. Cattle sure don’t perform the way we want them to when heat and humidity rises, and that is not good for them or your bottom line. 

Cattle’s well-being is important to us, so we have made sure to provide an extensive network of BioZyme dealers across the country so you can get the VitaFerm products you need. Locate a dealer near you and get your herd on VitaFerm today. 

Are you unsure whether VitaFerm products are right for your management scenario? Use our Concept•Aid Product Navigator to discover the product you need today. 

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