Winter Animal Husbandry Tips for Homesteaders

Marlene Affeld
12 Min Read

No matter if you are producing eggs, honey, milk, or meat, a well-considered animal-husbandry program is essential to the financial success of any homestead operation. Animal husbandry addresses a diverse array of variables, including physical surroundings, space, housing, nutrient intake, pest management, and water, in a manner that encourages farm animals to live in optimum health to grow, mature, and reproduce.

For many homesteaders, living in the cold northern regions of the country, proper winter animal-husbandry can be a daunting challenge. Read on for tips to help ensure your animals are not unduly stressed by the elements.

Environmental Variables for Winter Animal Husbandry

In a homestead animal-husbandry management-system, environmental conditions should reduce behavioral problems and enhance performance, while minimizing disease and death loss.

Predators, insects, parasites, and weather affect pastured livestock. Extremely hot or cold weather causes stress. Just as horses and cows in extreme heat require shade, livestock exposed to extreme cold require protection from the wind, supplemental feed, and non-frozen water. In winter, pasture plots with mounds, a south-sloping exposure, and a windbreak are recommended to provide dry areas, out of the wind, where grazers can rest.

A plan of animal-husbandry management that will work well for you is one that is dependent on factors unique to your operation and local environment. When locating and building pens, paddocks, coops, and barns, consider the terrain, the direction of prevailing winds, water accessibility, and ease of maintenance.

  • Plant shrubbery and trees to provide windbreaks.
  • In snow-prone regions, snow fences can help prevent deep drifts from creating winter farm maintenance problems.

Animal-husbandry management also includes managing mud. One can’t have animals without having mud. Mud, commonly found in areas where livestock congregates in winter, causes farm animals to be constantly chilled. Wet feet also increase the likelihood of animals contracting hoof and mouth diseases, such as thrush and foot rot, while encouraging parasitic infections.

  • Use gravel, wood chips, gutters, sand, or drainage tiles to control winter water movement, minimizing mud accumulation.

During the bitter cold months of winter, animals require exercise to promote skeletal and muscular health. Exercise helps prevent overgrown hooves and obesity.

  • Trim hooves as needed, checking for inflammation, swelling, and infection.
  • Keep pens and paddocks clean by removing mud and manure.
  • Promote exercise by varying water and feed sites.

Cool, Clear Water

Homestead domestic animals require a clean, reliable, year-round source of water. In winter weather, one might think that water requirements are satisfied; they can eat snow or lick the ice. Wrong!

Water requirements vary, dependent on species. A cow requires 12 to 14 gallons of water a day. A single sheep need at least 3 gallons a day. It is important that these needs are met. You do not want your animals eating snow; it lowers body temperature and increases energy consumption: stressing the animal.

  • Providing plenty of water will encourage domestic animals to be in the best of health and will prevent impaction and colic.

Winter Animal Husbandry Tips for Homesteaders

Nutrition for Winter Animal Husbandry

Nutritional requirements in livestock increase dramatically during cold weather, especially when animals are wet and the north wind blows. Dependent on species, research indicates that the lowest temperatures livestock can tolerate without supplemental energy demand to support their normal body temperature is from 20 to 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Animals with wet coats have an increased energy requirement of two percent for every degree the mercury drops.

  • Except in blizzard conditions, livestock tolerates cold weather if adequately fed.

Winter Manure Management

When caring for homestead animals, a well-designed manure management plan maintains clean facilities, minimizes the generation of dust and odors, minimizes parasites, rodents, and vermin, and prevents pollution of air, soil, and water. Although manure and sanitation in the pasture are not as big a concern as clean pens and paddocks, care should be exercised at water sites and cattle crossing to prevent soil erosion and to protect water features, especially when surface water is utilized as a water source.

If grazing animals are allowed access to water bodies, they add to natural resource problems when they degrade water quality by dropping manure directly into the pond, stream or lake. Unmanaged, manure carries disease-causing microorganisms. Grazing animals also contribute to stream bank destabilization and accelerate the loss of erosion-controlling bank vegetation.

  • Prevent Erosion. Restrict livestock access to streams, lakes, and wetlands.

Keep in mind, any increase in the number of animals about your homestead equates to an increase in problems you may be encountering regarding manure collection, treatment, transport, storage, or utilization.

When collecting and processing manures on the homestead, you can add liquid and solid animal-manures, spilled feed, used bedding, or any other organic by-product or livestock waste to the garden compost-pile. Annual applications of organic compost containing well-aged manure to gardens, orchards, cropland, and pasturelands, improves soil condition and provides essential nutrients for plant growth.

On a small homestead, land available for manure application at agronomic rates may not be feasible. However, well-aged organic manure is always a salable “cash crop” that many homesteaders rely upon as a steady stream of supplemental income.

  • Proper manure management methods benefit the homesteader as well as the entire ecosystem.

Animal Handling

Homestead animals may become nervous and excitable when confined in close quarters. Bone-chilling cold, high winds, and dramatic changes in barometric pressure seem to exacerbate this tendency. Facilities for capturing, sorting, testing, treating, loading, or confining livestock should allow enough space to work with your animals to keep them calm, should be durable and cost-efficient, and of the utmost importance, safe for you as well as your animals.

  • Floors in holding or housing areas should be properly drained.
  • Handling alleys and barns floors should provide traction to help prevent injuries to handlers and animals.
  • Pens, paddocks, and handling alleys should be free of sharp protrusions to prevent injuries.
  • Handling areas should encourage animal movement as much as feasible.
  • Avoid loud noises when working with animals; move slowly, talk softly.
  • When muddy conditions occur, provide traction in slippery holding and handling areas with additional bedding.


When transporting animals, comfort and safety should be the primary concern. Animals can become stressed when transported. Stress is aggravated in adverse weather conditions, especially during periods of extreme cold or when the weather is changing rapidly.

  • When transporting animals a long distance, be sure to provide ample feed and water.

Pig Care

Pigs require protection from extreme cold. Left outdoors, pigs are susceptible to frostbite and can even die if left to fend off the cold without an insulated, warm, and dry place to escape the worst of winter’s wrath. Kept outdoors, pigs drag snow into their sleeping area, creating wet bedding. Indoors, provide fresh, dry bedding on a regular basis. Pigs tend to urinate on their bedding. Cold, wet bedding leads to disease and death. When blizzard warnings are posted, put the pigs in the barn if it isn’t feasible to erect a shelter over your pigs’ sleeping boxes.

  • All year long, but especially during times of extreme cold, pigs must have lots of fresh, clean water.
  • Pigs have strong snouts that can easily flip and break heavy, full water pails. Automatic watering systems ensure a consistent water supply and reduce maintenance, water waste, and broken water containers.
  • Pigs presenting a discharge from their nose or eyes should be immediately checked by your veterinarian. If your pigs are coughing, wheezing, or presenting signs of pneumonia, contact the vet and commence treatment. Pneumonia is highly contagious amongst pigs and can be fatal. Any sick animals should be immediately isolated from the rest of the group.

chickens in snow, Winter Animal Husbandry Tips for Homesteaders

Clean The Chicken Coop

Chickens huddle together for warmth and, in winter weather, require shelter with good ventilation. Chickens are not the cleanest of farm animals. The ammonia emitted from their manure can kill the birds if well-designed ventilation is not provided.

  • Because they are “dirty birds”, chickens foul their water source. To keep your flock healthy, provide fresh, clean water several times daily.

Sheep, Llamas, and Alpacas

Sheep, llamas, and alpacas tolerate winter weather with little discomfort. They do appreciate a bit of shelter out of the wind, but cold is not typically a factor that affects their health or comfort. Make sure they have a continual source of unfrozen water. If snow cover makes grazing impossible, supplement feed as needed.

sheep in snow, Winter Animal Husbandry Tips for Homesteaders

Happy Goats

Goats are hardy animals that typically do well outdoors in most kinds of weather. However, to keep goats happy and comfortable, provide a snug shed where they can shelter out of the snow and winter winds.

  • Most goats refuse to break through even the thinnest of ice coating on water buckets. However, they have to have plenty of water, so when the temps drop below freezing, it’s time to use water heaters.
  • When the weather is inclement, goats require supplemental feed for energy to stay warm.
  • Providing free-choice baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to your goat herd helps keep their digestive systemsfunctioning smoothly by balancing pH in the rumen.
  • Provide shelter with a minimum of 8 to 10 square feet per animal. Goats will crowd together in very cold weather for warmth, which can increase the chances of respiratory problems and injury.
  • There is a high mortality rate amongst kids if they are not sheltered in extreme winter weather.

Pay Attention to Details

Although additional management challenges present during extremely cold weather, they are all “part and parcel” of being a responsible animal owner. It is important to pay attention to daily detail to identify and address problems early before they become major issues.


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