There’s a passage in the good book which states, “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required” – Luke 12:48.
Perhaps never has that been more true than for the homesteader who has livestock in the winter.
Like almost everyone else who goes into rural living or homesteading as a first-generation lifestyle, my wife and I had a steep learning curve the first winter after we purchased our flock of chickens some dozen years ago. After buying a few mature birds, and raising a couple dozen more from chicks in the spring, we thought we had taking care of yard birds all figured out… that is, until winter arrived.
That first year, we learned important things like how to keep plenty of unfrozen water, how to get the coop buttoned up against the bitter winter wind, and that we could encourage more egg production by supplementing the shorter days with some artificial lighting.
While birds may be more fragile than goats, pigs, or cattle, the fact is that all livestock requires some extra attention during the harsh winter months. If you have a hive of bees, or hutch of meat rabbits, or even a dog or some barn cats, they, too, need some extra attention. In nearly all instances, you must focus on providing ample useable water, shelter, and, nutrition, as well as keeping an eye on health. Failure in any of those categories and egg, milk, or meat production can suffer, or, in the worst-case scenario, you can lose animals altogether.
I’m no expert, but I do have decades of experience helping raise everything from bees to cattle to hunting dogs. Here are some things to consider when the mercury drops in the thermometer:
Preparing the Animals for Winter: The Water
Water is truly the nectar of life. The bodies of animals, just like humans, are made up primarily of water. It’s required to keep blood flowing, muscles supple and strong, eyes focused, and the brain’s and body’s systems functioning properly. And it takes a lot of it to keep going. Multiple sources say requirements can be as much as three gallons per day for sheep and 12-14 gallons for cattle. Pigs require 3 to 5 gallons for a mature adult. For birds, it’s much less since they get as much as half of their required moisture intake from feed, but it’s still very important to provide plenty of supplemental unfrozen water.
Many novices will tend to think their animals can get plenty of water when there’s snow on the ground—after all, moisture is everywhere, right?—but, it’s not useable moisture. Eating snow or licking ice to get water solves one problem but creates another. Snow and ice consumption will rapidly lower the body temperature of any creature and, therefore, should be discouraged.
You’ll need to provide all your animals with drinking water that is at least 37 degrees or warmer. You can do this in any of several ways. The first, and most time- and energy-consuming, is to freshen water bowls, tubs, and/or troughs several times a day when the temperature drops below freezing. If you’re wanting the exercise and don’t mind the time it takes, or have no means of getting power to your coop or pens, this is, by far, the most cost-effective. But it’ll require a few trips a day to make it work on bitterly cold days.
If you have the luxury of electricity to your livestock areas then you’re way ahead in the game.
Back when we switched our focus from raising hunting beagles to goats and chickens, the best things available were small electric coils you could buy and place in water pans or troughs. While they worked well, there was always the fear of the mechanism falling too far into the water and shorting out, or worse, causing injury from electrical shock. The ones we used had a little metal tab built-in that hung on the edge of the pan or trough to keep the wire connections to the heating coil above the waterline. But you had to wire or zip-tie the heater in place against some fencing or a post to keep the animals from bumping it and dropping it into the drink.
Nowadays, multiple manufacturers offer cost-efficient and much safer alternatives in heated waterers or bowls. The power unit is built into the container’s base and warms the water to above freezing through the surface of the container instead of the hot coil being directly in contact with the water. Simply replace the old water system with a new heated system and plug it in, top it off with water and keep it filled and you’re good to go. In the summertime, you can use the same container and just unplug it, but I prefer to switch back to a metal or rubber tub and take that opportunity to give the winter container a thorough cleaning and sterilizing before storing it away in the barn or shed until the next winter.
Regardless of the method you employ, fresh, unfrozen drinking water is an absolute must for all your animals. A shortage can lead to reduced egg production, stress (which can taint the quality and flavor of meat), and cause more immediate concerns such as impaction and colic from food intake without proper water amounts.
Preparing the Animals for Winter: The Shelter
The next big concern, especially in winter, is shelter. If you’re new to the livestock game there’s something you should know upfront: animals do not want, or need, to live in a tight, enclosed, toasty-warm enclosure. And trying to keep them there can quickly result in illness and disease. Animal shelters need plenty of fresh air circulating to keep down bacteria, mold, and other concerns from moisture, excess feed and excrement, and deteriorating bedding.
Furthermore, animals tend to toughen to conditions through a combination of genetics and the changing of seasons. Oftentimes cattle standing out in a field with snow piling up on their backs are healthier than if you tried to keep them in a heated barn. Now, of course, you need to provide some shelter for any animal to utilize, but the creatures tend to know when they want to use shelter or stay outside. Provide, but don’t force to use.
That said, protection from harsh wind and driving rain, sleet, or snow is a must. Additionally, pigs will need shade from sun more so than most other homestead animals. For cattle, that shelter can be trees of thickets, but, for animals housed in more confined areas, without ample natural cover it’s up to you to provide cover.
In most cases, that can be three-sided sheds. Unless you’re really concerned with aesthetics, shelter can be built from scrap lumber, tarps, or slab wood from the nearest sawmill. Or if you want to go one step better, consider buying some rough-sawn lumber from the sawmill. If you’re new to homesteading and just arrived in the country you might feel more comfortable visiting a lumber yard or hardware store but expect to pay considerably more. But, keep in mind, if you’re going to be living rural, you’ll find many future uses for sawmill lumber. And having a source for sawdust or chips for bedding, and mulch for your plants and trees is a necessity anyway. My in-laws own and operate a sawmill and sell dimension lumber, slabs, sawdust, and mulch, and can custom cut larger dimension lumber for beams or sills… it’s a great resource for a homesteader.
As for the height and other dimensions for shelter for each animal type, that is beyond the scope of this article, but there’s countless resources online and in print from university outreaches and agriculture/farming cooperatives. Just remember there needs to be enough cover for all animals (whether one or a dozen or more) to benefit at the same time without overcrowding each other. Pigs prefer to lay close together. While chickens will roost on the same pole or ledge, they prefer a little bit of space between them but will huddle a little closer together in the cold. Each type of animal is different in their preference.
Earlier, we talked about how shelter should be able to breathe. A building which is too tightly enclosed will promote bacteria, mold, and hold in ammonia fumes from urine. That’s why three-sided shelters work well for cattle, goats, sheep, and such. Provide a few good, solid walls to block wind and cold, but leave enough opening on one side to allow odors and dangerous fumes to escape, and good oxygen to filter in. Barns should be built in such a way to allow for good ventilation, preferably with the entry/exit openings and main run in line with the prevailing wind direction.
Chickens need a good secure place to get out of the weather and roost a night. But remember the focus is to protect them at night from predators and the harshest weather, not to stifle fresh air. Barn cats will find what they need in the way of shelter, but dogs which live outside need a good house.
In every case, provide dry and clean bedding, especially during winter. A common concern in winter is mud where animals tend to congregate and bed down. Mud can lead to hoof or foot diseases (thrush or rot) and the formation of ice. Considering a layer of gravel or sand below chip, hay, or other bedding to allow for a moisture barrier in shelter areas. And just like water and food, shelter needs will require more attention during the colder winter months.
Preparing the Animals for Winter: Food and Health
All warm-blooded animals require additional nutrition during cold weather. It takes more energy to provide more body heat, and cold rain, snow, or wind only adds to that need. Some sources say if the outdoor temperature is holding in the 20- to 30-degree range or lower, then most livestock will need additional feed to maintain body temperature and functions. I’ve read elsewhere that the level where more feed is required can be as high as 50 to 60 degrees for wet animals.
If you’re feeding grains, consider feeding more often in winter as opposed to just feeding more quantity at the usual times. Some animals will get colic (stomach pain) from eating excessively and too quickly. Shoot, I’ve been known to do the same thing myself when my wife makes the first big batch of chili each fall, or a German chocolate cake any time of the year. It’s best to start slowly introducing more feed to animals when the weather starts turning cold. This “fattening up” will provide extra internal fuel at the ready when excessive cold hits, instead of having to rely on taking in much more feed on any given day.
And remember that more food will be wasted during the winter months from being mixed with bedding and mud than will occur in other seasons.
One last note here: don’t overlook providing supplemental minerals during the winter. Keep salt blocks and mineral blocks handy (and, of course, the weather will deteriorate them more quickly than in summer), and trace minerals and stock salt should be available for goats and sheep who tend to not use blocks as do cattle or horses. I provide extra trace minerals and salt for wildlife around my hunting property during the winter as well.
The moral of this story is, if you’re going to have animals on the homestead in the winter, you need to plan to spend extra time and expenses to keep them healthy. The real key is paying attention to their needs: water, shelter, and food. You know that you require more attention during these months, and the same holds true for all your pets and livestock.