The matter of the benefits of shade to grazing animals is one of some dispute. Some producers hold that it isn’t really of any true benefit, that it is just a case of humanizing the animals. We like shade. So we figure they like shade. There is something to recommend this mode of thinking. Cattle have much heavier coats and hides than we do. They don’t seem to sunburn, even on their exposed skin (udder, vulva). I would reckon that they are much more sun-hardy that we are, but after all, they are just more everything-hardy. Cattle are comfortable in freezing weather that would kill us in minutes if exposed. They can suffer dehydration and starvation better than we can. There is reason why it takes about a dozen guys to bring down a bull in a bullfight, and even then, the bull doesn’t always lose.
But were not talking about what animals can survive. We are talking about what best promotes their growth, contentment, and productivity. There is no doubt in my mind that shade is not only greatly preferred by cattle if they can find it, but also that it has some tangible productive benefit. The question is how does one obtain shade without causing other problems.
The first and most obvious way to get shade is from trees. They were practically made for giving shade. But if some fool cut down every damn one of the trees where your animals are going to live, then you can only plant trees and wait for them, and they won’t be ready in your cow’s lifetime. I have detailed elsewhere how I have gone about developing a silvoculural plantation on my place where the animals wont destroy the young trees. But the cattle I have now will never benefit from this.
So one is faced with a couple of options. You can grant them free access to a barn or some building if you have it. Or you can put some type of shade providing structure in their paddocks. If you are moving their paddocks around, this is a real challenge, because the shelter will need to be portable. And portability and sturdiness and wind-hardiness are pretty much directly opposed.
Here’s what I’ve done so far. I put four 4’x4’x8′ posts into the ground and made a roof out of 2’x4’s and a tarp. This is very cheap and can be put up in a couple hours if you are efficient about it (here’s a tip, build the roof first, use the roof to locate the holes, then put in the posts!). It costs around $50-80 depending on local treated lumber prices and the quality of the tarp.
In about one day the cow will completely trash the sod under the tarp, and it will be necessary to put bedding down to control the mud. The more animals you have the larger such a shelter will need to be. They are handy places for terminating some polywire or having a mineral feeder, too, as they keep out the rain. Obviously, such a solution is only a pale imitation of a real tree, but at least it wont just blow away like an patio umbrella or other portable solution. Shade Haven type shelters, while an elegant solution, cost more than all the farming equipment I own, and are not practical cost wise for any but the large producers.
Sometimes animals figure out their own solutions. Our calf uses giant ragweed to take shelter under from the sun. This may be the best use of ragweed yet!
Now, planting stands of ragweed for shade has to be one of the craziest ideas. But it sounds reasonable. They grow fast and at the time of year you need shade. They wont provide much at noon like a tree will, but before 10 and after 2 they should be effective if your animals are smart enough to stand in the shadow. Cattle, in my experience, find it unpalatable. Maybe sunflowers would work this way, too. But I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out next year, but sometimes you learn from the most unlikely sources.