I hope everyone stayed warm and safe this past weekend as the “bomb cyclone” made its way through the East Coast, bringing wind, snow, and lots of cold air!
In light of the frigid temperatures, high winds, and heavy snowfall we experienced, I thought it would be a good time to share some of our tips for dealing with this kind of weather on the farm.
There are a few critical things to consider and plan for when cold weather arrives: 1) having a draft-free shelter, 2) providing plenty of hay, 3) maintaining constant unfrozen water, 4) keeping animals warm.
Let’s Talk About Shelter
All outdoor animals need shelter from wind, heat, rain, snow, sleet, hail, etc. Depending on the climate you live in, the shelter may need to be more or less weather proof. Ideally, your shelter is three sided with the opening facing AWAY from the direction of the wind. This ensures that your farm animals are protected from strong winds and precipitation. You can read a great article outlining an ideal shelter for horses, here.
For many animals, especially animals with long coats and in good health, a strong, draft-free shelter is sufficient for when storms or winter weather roll through.
Here at the Sunshine Farm, our chickens have a wooden coop, with a small door opening, which we close up during periods with high winds. We have a wooden four-sided shelter for the goats (shown below), with a small door opening, which we fill with straw for insulation. And for the horses, we have a three-sided shelter (also shown below); however, there are gaps in two of the sides, so it is not entirely draft free. Because of this, when it’s extremely cold out and the wind picks up, sometimes we bring the horses into the barn to give them a break from the wind. If you do not have a draft-free shelter in your pastures, make sure to bring the animals in the barn when temperatures drop substantially and wind picks up.
Another thing to consider when setting up your shelters and barn for the cold, is good bedding. For horses, this doesn’t typically have to change at all during the winter. So whatever you’re using, whether it’s wood chips or pellets or something else, it will suffice! For our horses we use wood pellets because they soak up moisture really well! For smaller farm animals like goats and sheep, straw is a great source of bedding that provides insulation from the cold. A good thick layer of straw will mostly do the trick in keeping your animals warm.
LOTS of Hay
The cold, wind, and snow take a lot of energy from our farm animals. In order to keep themselves warm, horses, goats, and other similar animals must eat a lot of fiber (from hay) to keep their digestive systems moving in order to warm up their bodies. During cold weather conditions, access to high-quality hay 24/7 is critical to allow for digestion and fermentation to warm up their systems. Access to hay or natural forage 24/7, year round, is ideal for the digestive systems of many farm animals, including horses and goats. There are exceptions of course; for example, horses prone to foundering in the Spring. In the cold winter months, especially when temperatures drop suddenly or a storm is rolling in, constant access to forage becomes increasingly important. We like to order horse-quality round bales during the winter because it allows them to have constant access. We also make sure to provide high-quality hay 24/7 to the goats as well.
I know many horse owners like to feed a warm mash (grain or bran mixed with hot water) during cold temperatures in an effort to warm their horses up and hydrate them. I’ve researched the topic quite a bit and it seems the water within the warm mashes is the primary benefit, which you can read about here. If your horses or other farm animals are already being fed grain, then making a mash of their grain with hot water seems to make a lot of sense in the cold, because it can provide extra hydration. If you are not feeding any grain, then there doesn’t seem to be a strong argument for it. Most of the research I found (here for example) does not support the idea that mashes provide nutrition, warmth, or protection against colic. If you have horses and they have constant access to unfrozen water, you really shouldn’t need to make a mash at all. HOWEVER, I do not have experience with using mashes and I’m sure there are many differing opinions on this. I imagine there are a number of cases where a warm mash helps encourage horses to drink more. Again, it also depends on the animal’s age, health, and individual needs, in addition to the owner’s preference and experience.
Here comes the biggest challenge during freezing temperatures, winter storms, and unexpected drops in temperature: keeping your animals’ water unfrozen! Now if you’ve planned well and have electricity running to your barn, then you likely have some heaters for water tanks or heated buckets on hand, or at least have the capability to quickly get some. These will substantially reduce the number of times you’ll have to run out into the barn!
At the Sunshine Farm we have a heater in our stock tank for the horses when they are out in pasture, and we have a heated bucket in the goat pen. We do not have any heated buckets in the barn, which proved to be a problem this past weekend when we brought all the animals in. If you do not have access to heated buckets, you’re going to have to fill up buckets and pans with hot water to give your animals time to drink before it freezes again; here’s where an electric kettle can come in handy! Then you’re going to want to regularly break up the ice and refill the buckets with hot water to ensure your animals always have access to unfrozen water. It’s a pain, but also completely necessary to make sure all of your critters maintain good health during harsh winter weather. *Tip: Rubber buckets do better in these conditions because they are easier to empty of frozen water. Plastic buckets frequently break, and are extremely difficult to empty when frozen.
Other Ways to Keep Your Critters Warm
If you have a draft-free shelter with good bedding, lots of hay, and plenty of water, often times your farm animals won’t need much else to stay warm! Baby animals, older animals, animals with short coats, and animals with health issues may need extra precautions like blanketing and heating lamps.
Many horses, goats, sheep, and other farm animals grow long, thick coats to prepare for the cold, and may not need any blanketing; however, it really depends on the individual animal as well as the owner’s preference. Many horse owners use blankets in the winter so that their horses’ coats don’t grow quite as long, making it easier to ride year-round. Other owners prefer to not blanket at all and their horses seem to do fine. If you’re clipping your horses (or other animals) coats at all, then blanketing is likely a must. Additionally, when a sudden drop in temperature occurs, it is important to consider whether or not your animals will need blanketing. Keep an eye on them to determine how they are doing in the cold. Shivering is a very clear indicator that they could use a blanket, or an extra source of heat (from shelter, bedding, etc.). Below you can see we have a mid-weight blanket on TJ when it gets to be in the 20’s and below, while Justin doesn’t need any blanketing as he has grown such a long and fuzzy winter coat! You can also see the sweaters we use to keep our baby goat warm. They are actually xs dog sweaters, like this, that you can likely find at a pet store.
Just a couple of weeks ago one of our adopted goats gave birth to a little doeling, you can read about her in the post, Baby Goat Born on the Farm. Because she was born in the middle of winter, we set up a stall with a heating lamp to make sure she had plenty of warmth. My advice is to use heating lamps ONLY if necessary. This is because they can be a major fire risk and can be extremely dangerous to your barn and all the animals inside. The one we purchased appears to be the safest one on the market, Premier 1. It is a little pricey, but it gives us peace of mind that our animals are safe and warm. In the pictures below you can see the light from the heating lamp in the corner. Our doeling, Noel, definitely likes to hang out under the lamp, soaking up the warmth!
Other Things to Consider
- Protection for you! Layers, layers, and some more layers! In order to take good care of your animals in the cold, you have to check up on them and make sure they constantly have access to hay, water, and shelter. This means you’re going outside A LOT more than you would like to in miserable weather conditions. Make sure your body is protected, especially your extremities, and find a way to keep your face out of the cold and wind.
- Structural safety: in high winds make sure everything is very secure so animals are not injured due to strong gusts. This includes any small shelters, feed buckets, other equipment, etc.
- Keeping your critters happy: some animals don’t like to walk in the deep snow. Our chickens and goats prefer to avoid it if possible. We like to shovel a path for them so they can walk around and get out of their shelters without having to walk through deep snow, which you can see below:
- Ice and slipping: try to clear any icy areas to reduce the risk of your animals falling. Make sure to research safe options for melting ice, you can also try to break up the ice shovel it out.
- Freezing pipes and hoses: before temperatures drop, find a way to protect your barn pipes from freezing. A furnace, stove, or other household heating source will protect your home’s pipes; but, you need to take additional measures for your barn. We use a heating tape to protect our barn’s spigot. We also purchased a heated hose (sounds fancy! ), which is expensive, but well worth the cost! We attached it once temperatures started to drop and used it all last week, despite temperatures in the single digits.
- Protecting electric appliances and extension chords: when you have to run extension chords for heaters and other appliances. Make sure you’re using all necessary precautions. Some safety information for extension chords is available here. There is also an entire website dedicated to fire safety in barns that provides some useful information.
I hope this post was helpful to you! I would love to hear strategies you use with your own farm animals during winter weather. I am already dreaming of late April when the trees start to bud and the flowers begin to bloom… but for now, I will enjoy the way the snow softly sits on the trees and the beauty of watching horses run through the snow.
All my best,