Caring for Livestock in Cold Weather

With the crazy weather and arctic vortexes, it’s easy to worry about your livestock, especially when the weather turns from nice to frigid within a few days’ time. Here in Montana, we went from the warm 50 degrees to below zero — a shock on both humans and animals. Here are some pointers for making certain that your livestock stays healthy throughout the winter.

Water

Although we tend to think about water in the summertime, the real problem is keeping your critters watered during the winter. Snow and ice do not make readily drinkable water, and although we can break ice and get to the water easily enough, most livestock are stymied when it comes to even a small layer of ice. Add to that the relative lack of thirst during colder temperatures and you can see easily why dehydration is such a factor in winter.

Livestock, especially horses, tend to drink more water in winter when the water is warm, rather than cold. For this reason, having a bucket warmer might be a good idea. Failing that, just keeping the water from freezing with an electric deicer will help keep water available at all times.

Shelter

All livestock need some type of shelter during inclement weather, especially extreme cold and rain, or anything that can get them wet. Most livestock are pretty hardy and have thick enough coats to handle snow and cold, but once soaked, it’s hard for the animals to stay warm. Cattle, goats, sheep, and horses are capable of staying warm because of their dense coats if they remain dry. My own experience has been that my horses do fine with a place to stand out of the rain and wind. My goats end up looking like puffballs on stilts, but they’re able to handle the cold just fine.

When it comes to pigs and hogs, they can handle the cold as long as they have dry, deep bedding to keep them warm at night. Chickens, if they’re cold hardy, can do fine provided that they can stay dry and they’re not molting.

Shelter can consist of a windbreak, or can be something with a roof to keep rain out of plus walls to keep the wind off the animals. Three walls is best although anything with a windbreak that opens either to the south or east is best.

Most livestock are capable of handling cold weather, but like us, they can get caught out with extreme temperature swings. The hardest hit are the newborns, sick, very young, and the older animals that may have trouble maintaining their core temperatures. Newborn animals are especially affected because they are wet and can suffer from hypothermia quickly.

This is why pregnant, older, young animals, and animals that are still nursing need more shelter than the herd. Any animal that is sick also needs more shelter than the rest of the herd. When considering shelter for these animals, find a place that is warm or that you can warm up easily, either through heat or through the body heat of other animals in that space.

Feed

Animals need more calories to stay warm when out in the frigid temperatures. Most livestock do well with higher protein foods, such as grain, but in terms of having the feed be “hot,” hay will actually make horses and ruminants warmer. The bacteria in the rumen (or in the horse, the cecum), will create heat in the animal and will keep them warmer than grain. In extremely cold conditions, it is best to increase the hay rather than the grain.

For chickens and other poultry, it’s important to up the protein levels and feed as high as you possibly can for both keeping your birds healthy and keeping them producing eggs, even in winter.

Other Considerations

It’s important to keep pathways clear to the feeders when digging the snow out of your pens or your fields. You don’t want your animals to become trapped away from their source of food or water, so it’s best to keep the areas clear of snow. Don’t let snow accumulate too high especially near fences, or you may have a livestock escape on your hands. Clever animals can eventually pack down the snow enough to use it as a ramp to freedom.

While not an escape route, manure can pile up high quickly, especially if your animals are confined. Plan on clearing it out regularly to avoid having health problems, as well as too much manure piled up.

It’s Tough but Necessary

Having livestock is a great way (almost necessary) for one to become self-reliant. Like anything worthwhile, it has it’s challenges and those challenges always seem tougher in the winter. If you’re thinking of getting livestock, I suggest starting small and getting through one full year with a small herd/flock before expanding your livestock operation. Learn and adjust as you go and you’ll have less risk.

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