Winter is a Balancing Act

Winter brings challenges for livestock producers and the animals in their care. December is the darkest month, and January is our coldest month. We must watch the weather forecast and plan accordingly.

Animals need energy – in the form of nutritional feed and fiber – to help them stay warm during the winter months. However, it’s important that they are not overfed because they can gain weight easily when they’re not as active. 

Obesity is especially a concern for female animals pregnant with spring babies. For example, I raise goats. Female goats are called does. A pregnant doe, especially late in her pregnancy, doesn’t have enough room inside to consume lots of grain and the amount of hay required for proper rumen function, as well as allow the fetuses grow. Boer goats like I raise typically give birth to twins.

Just like we put on a sweater in the fall or a jacket in the winter, animals that live outside naturally adapt to the changing environment. For example, my goats grow two layers of hair. Long guard hairs grow on top, and fluffy cashmere grows underneath. The cashmere works as insulation, and the guard hairs help keep water and dirt off the goats’ skin and undercoat. It’s important that the goats’ diet includes proper amounts of mineral to support proper hair growth.

Another way farmers help their animals stay warm is by providing them with deep, clean fresh bedding like straw or cornstalks. The bedding acts like a blanket as it provides a barrier or protection between the cold floor and helps keep heat around the animal. I put down fresh bales of straw when I see the temperatures are going to fall below zero. In addition, my goats can go inside sheds to further protect them from the cold winter winds that blow across the Midwest prairie. 

One more challenge we have in winter is making sure our goats have 24/7 access to fresh water because water is important for proper rumination. My goats drink more water on especially cold days, which are the days when it’s most challenging to keep their water pails thawed. We use heated buckets to keep the water thawed, and these pails do a great job until the temperatures fall below zero. When temperatures are negative and the Arctic winds blow, the top of the heated water pails often freeze. I check the water pails daily and swap them out as needed to ensure my goats always have fresh water.

It's also important that the goats can reach the water. January tends to be the snowiest month of the year. Blowing, drifting snow can create a barrier to the fresh water. We use a tractor and loader, also called a bucket, to clear paths for our animals to reach their water. I leave the goats’ water pails in the same place all year long because this encourages them to move around more. We all know that moving around helps warm a body, plus it helps them use their muscles. 

Days of extremely cold temperatures are not fit for man nor beast. Fortunately, there are only about 10 days each January when the temperatures drop below zero. The cold temperatures really don’t bother me most days as I do chores because I dress in layers. 

As February approaches, I’m looking forward to more days of temperatures in the 30s. Each day brings us longer hours of daylight, which is another positive. Temperatures in March usually increase another 10 degrees, which helps the snow melt faster. As much as I enjoy experiencing Iowa’s four unique seasons, I always look forward to the next one. The countdown to spring is on now!