Farm Animals in the Winter | Things to Consider in Cold Weather

As we prepare for a winter storm rolling through this weekend AND a polar vortex, I wanted to share with you all, some tips for preparing farm animals for the cold.

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). If you do not have a draft-free shelter in your pastures, make sure to bring the animals into a barn or shelter 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.

Hay, Hay, and MORE 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. In the cold winter months, especially when temperatures drop suddenly or a storm is rolling in, constant access to forage becomes increasingly important.

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Unfrozen Water

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!

Heated Water Tanks

At the Sunshine Farm we have a heater in our stock tank for the horses when they are out in pasture, like this one. We also have a heated bucket in the goat pen, just like this one.

Heated Hose

On our farm we use a heated hose every winter. It may be a bit expensive, but well worth the cost! We bought the 100 foot Prit Heated Hose, and attached it once temperatures started to drop. We use it all winter, despite temperatures in the single digits.

If you do not have access to heated tanks or 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! Your 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.

Blanketing

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.

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 our paint when it gets to be in the 20’s and below, while the mini 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 one, that you can find online or in store.

Heating Lamps

One of our adopted goats gave birth to a little doeling in the middle of winter in 2017. You can read about that 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 Heat Lamp. 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.

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.Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
  • 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.
  • 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.

That’s all for now friends.

All my best,

Jenn

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