This is a picture of the first snow of the first year that I owned cattle. Looking at this picture brings back so many feelings and memories of the wild winters we experienced during the first two years on the ranch. I was new and I didn’t know what to expect. I worried about the animals constantly during those first two winters and made all sorts of grand gestures to ensure that they were happy and comfortable. I built wind breaks, I thought about feeding grain to the animals, I checked on them in the middle of the night, and through it all, the animals chewed their cud, they snuggled in their deep bedding, they looked for bugs under the snow, and they ate, pooped, and played the same as usual.
My mistake was simple, I was comparing these animals to my pitiful winter survival skills as a human. We are burdened with our energy hungry brains, hairless bodies, and inability to naturally slow our metabolism and sleep though winter. Humans have not evolved to survive in subzero temperatures but we have done a good job of adapting our environment to support us.
So what do animals need in the winter? First and foremost they need time to naturally adapt to the weather. These critters have genes that are stimulated by the waning sunlight and the actual cold that will cause changes in their body. These changes will allow them to thrive in environments that would kill a human in mere hours. If brought inside, put under lights, and pampered, the animals will not be able to gradually adjust to the changes outside and this can put them at risk when the really nasty weather hits.
Secondly, animals need fresh air and fresh water in the winter. One of their winter adaptations is to put out more heat than usual and when animals are kept at close quarters in enclosed shelters this creates an environment that is more conducive to infections. So what are the housing requirements of different livestock? Well the big four require slightly different set ups but the general themes are the same.
No artificial heat or lights (except for laying flocks or stimulating heat cycles), fresh air, clean water, bedding, and protection from the elements. But this means different things for different livestock. Beef and dairy should spend as much time outdoors as possible. The worst thing for all animals is to be wet and in the wind. The best strategy for cattle is to construct a windbreak or ensure that they can get to natural windbreaks during nasty weather. Dairy cattle will be in milking parlors in the winter but after milking they should return to areas where there is more air movement. Your goal should be to allow adequate air movement while preventing drafts.
Fresh water is also essential to winter fitness because animals require water to process their feed. Many animals can and will eat snow but will always drink fresh water if they have been deprived. There are a few exceptions to this rule when it comes to cattle. Cattle have the ability to teach their young to eat snow and in extreme cold where water is far away it is actually better to have them eat snow than consume vast amounts of water in one go as this can lower their core body temperature.
Small ruminants do not put out as much heat as cattle and they require a shelter with bedding to keep them warm and dry. Our porcine friends require similar digs but more on the side of deep bedding as they do not have the hair that ruminants have. The pigs will cuddle down into the composting bedding and keep warm that way. Chickens need to be out of the wind to avoid frostbite and if allowed they will spend the majority of their day out in the snow foraging and being their usual brash selves.
Another thing that animals need in winter is plenty of feed. All that heat is made by converting calories to energy so animal’s feed requirements will rise during the cold months of winter. One mistake that new owners make is thinking they need to feed more protein to their ruminants during these times. In reality, ruminants need more carbohydrates during this time than protein. The hay will be broken down in their rumens and this action will release heat, keeping the animals warm from the inside out.
So keep these things in mind as you navigate through this winter. Make sure you have fresh water, fresh air, extra food, and the ability to let your animals make the changes they are genetically programmed to make to survive the weather. Study their behavior and their behaviors in relation to the weather conditions and you will be better able to understand and adapt your set up to their needs.