Animal Husbandry in the Bitter Cold

A meme was circulating earlier this winter with an image of a frozen stock tank and a sledge hammer with the caption, “If winter is your favorite season, there’s a 99% chance you don’t have livestock.” I wouldn’t quite agree to this statement—there are lots of reasons to love the milder parts of winter in animal husbandry, including a reprieve from mud, biting flies, and heat stress. But things can grow pretty rough when we reach the bitter cold part of winter.

I’m not talking about the occasional sub-zero dip but those prolonged spells where the cold becomes relentless. We’re currently in our second week of nighttime temperatures plunging into double digits below, with -30 being this morning’s thermometer greeting.

“Below what?” a grad school friend out east asked once. “Below freezing?”

“No!” I responded in surprise. “Below zero, which is 32 degrees below freezing already!”

Adding a wind chill that plunges this skin experience into the -40 degree range and just the process of doing morning chores is hazardous and risks frostbite. I bundle up, leaving my glasses behind and only a slit between turtle fur and downy quilted bomber-style hat for viewing. Still, my eyelashes freeze together, and I have to whip out a bare hand briefly to pull off the forming ice chunks so I can see.

“Is there any weather that you don’t go out in for farming?” another friend asked. “I mean, you just look out there and say, not today.”

I paused for just a second, thinking how that thought hadn’t crossed my mind in farming. “Em, nope,” I answered. “They need you. It’s your job to bundle up and be smart about it, but you don’t get to skip a day of chores just because it’s nasty out.”

“But what do you do with the animals? Is their space heated or something?” she persisted.

I do hear this question fairly often, and it makes me wonder if some folks think there are warming shelters for the deer in the woods, but I also understand that fewer and fewer folks have first-hand experience of raising livestock anymore, so how would they know? You don’t let the dog out for very long when it’s cold, so do you bring the sheep inside too?

On our farm, we purposely raise breeds that are built for the cold. Wooly sheep, already sporting a six-inch coat look like frosted marshmallows on legs. Heritage Kunekune pigs are compact with significantly more curly and wiry fur than most standard breeds. For chickens, I select heavy breeds with good feathering and short combs to avoid frostbite.

The next most important aspect is winter housing, especially protection from the wind. Cut the wind out of the picture, and already the perceived temperature is greatly warmed. All of our animals have access to shelter, whether it’s a south-facing windowed coop that collects solar warmth or a cozy barn or a south-facing run-in shelter. When it’s this cold, at least it’s typically sunny, which means the animals can take advantage of stocking up on solar warmth during the day.

After the need for shelter, next comes good bedding. In winter, we use the deep bedding pack method by adding more layers of bedding on top, whether fluffy straw or wood shavings. As the season progresses, the top layer of fresh bedding keeps the animals comfortable, while the bottom layers are slowly beginning to decompose, adding some heat and insulating the livestock from the concrete below.

Having plenty of high calorie food is the next essential for wintering livestock in these extreme conditions. In the summertime, lush pastures offer most of the needed nutrition, and for poultry the plentiful supply of worms and bugs keep the meat-eating side of their omnivorous nature satisfied. But of course, in winter, there are no bugs to munch, and they can quickly take out their frustration over this lack of dietary diversity on each other if not mitigated. That’s why, each year, we save the suet and organ meats from taking animals to the butcher and then dole it out to the hens all winter. They adore it! And it gives them the extra energy boost they need to make heat on these frigid nights.

And then there is the never-ending challenge of supplying water. The saga of keeping stock tank heaters going for the sheep, cows, horse, and guard donkeys always has its epic fails. Recently, one of the heaters malfunctioned and burned right through the bottom of the rugged rubberized stock tank! I’ve given up on the pathetic, flimsy heated chicken waterers and just pile the summer waterers onto a long toboggan sled at evening chores and pull it into our in-floor heated walk-out basement to thaw overnight, then refill them in the morning. It’s not perfect, but the hens, turkeys, and ducks appreciate the fresh water in the morning.

It’s also essential to have enough animals that they keep each other warm. 140 hens in a coop create significant heat for each other, in a way that 4 or 5 could not. A group of pigs can snuggle together, whereas one pig all by itself would find it challenging because of no snuggle buddies.

There are so many challenges for keeping livestock in these conditions, so remember those homestead-style farmers out there doing their very best for their animals, despite frozen eyelashes (and even nose hairs), cold toes and fingers, and the challenge of something always breaking down. Remember them and choose to support their efforts, care, and determination. See you down on the farm sometime.