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How To Care For Livestock In Winter

Updated on October 17, 2016
Cynthia Hoover profile image

Cynthia is a gardening enthusiast. She has a green thumb and always plants a variety of items for harvesting during gardening season.

Taking Care Of Livestock In Winter

Livestock are susceptible to much more in winter than you may think.
Livestock are susceptible to much more in winter than you may think.

There are so many elements of winter that can harm both humans and livestock alike. It is important to research what you will need to do in order to care for livestock prior to taking on the responsibilities. What do you need to know about caring for your livestock animals in winter? There are many dangers in winter and they will effect your livestock.

Not all livestock animals are created equal. Some livestock require much more work than others. You should keep that in mind and research accordingly prior to acquiring livestock or agreeing to the responsibility.

I also want to stress that some livestock animals are more expensive to raise and care for than others. So please be 100% sure that you can afford to take care of animals properly before you commit to one. All too often livestock and farm animals are seized for malnutrition because the owners can simply not afford to keep them. If you find you've bitten off more than you can chew, please do not let the animal suffer. Find a rescue or another farm that can take them in before they become malnourished or ill.

Harsh conditions of winter will affect all types of livestock and even your pets.
Harsh conditions of winter will affect all types of livestock and even your pets.

Winter Conditions And Caring For Livestock Or Farm Pets

Winter is host to harsh conditions and severe weather. Along with beautiful snow comes hazardous below freezing weather and even freezing rain. This is all too often the cause of loss of a livestock animal. These conditions make it hard for humans and livestock alike.

As temperatures begin reaching the freezing threshold, the likelihood of livestock becoming injured increases greatly. Much the same as with humans, it can often be hard for animals to find sure footing in harsh weather. A walk to a favorite watering hole can quickly take a turn for the worse for livestock.

  • Livestock nutritional maintenance increases greatly during the winter months. Extra feed is needed, which a huge financial drain for many families. (Something to be mindful of when budgeting).
  • Shelter is important during harsh weather conditions. Provide access to natural windbreaks, or create temporary windbreaks.
  • House animals in a barn or other sheltered area during extreme winter weather. (While livestock may hate being kept indoors, it is safer than having them roam free and succumbing to the harsh, frigid conditions of winter.) Provide plenty of dry bedding for comfort and warmth.
  • Cows suffer cold stress and may need extra care beyond that of other livestock during peak winter conditions. Any pregnant cows certainly need more attention, as the cold stress can be much harder for them.

Priorities Of Wintering Livestock

Before committing to take care of any livestock you should consider the priorities. Homesteaders, farmers and hobby farmers need to consider the cost involved. Plus the time involved in managing livestock and pets. Here are the top priorities for wintering livestock:

  • Water. (Frozen water cannot be accessed by animals. Snow is not a viable option. And remember, extra feed during winter requires additional water for drinking.)
  • Energy requirements and body condition.
  • Feeding. (How will you feed your livestock appropriately without wasting food?)
  • Shelter.
  • Health management, including hoof care.
  • Mud, muck and terrain concerns.

Each of these tasks and considerations will take up much of your time. Especially if you have multiple types of livestock and large herds!

Water Needs Of Livestock During Winter

The need for clean and reliable year-round water can not be stressed enough. Water is the main necessity for survival ~ along with nutrients ~ for your livestock. This can become a very time consuming task especially in winter. For example, a single sheep will need around 3 gallons of water each day. Each cow will need 14 gallons of water each day. Watering livestock can consume much of your day in winter. Especially when the temperatures freeze your water buckets.

A novice farmer or homesteader may think that livestock will make up for fresh water by eating snow or licking ice. This is absolutely false, and should be avoided.

  • Snow does not meet the needed requirements.
  • Eating snow lowers the animal's body temperature.
  • Allowing livestock to eat ice or snow should not be permitted at all.
  • You must be prepared to provide fresh water daily, and to check it is not frozen.

Often in winter with freezing conditions you will double or triple your water duty chores. As buckets freeze you must switch them out and provide fresh unfrozen water for your livestock animals and pets to access.

Other than the exception of some breeds of livestock guardian dogs, pets should ideally stay indoors during freezing temperatures.

There are alternatives to switching out frozen buckets. Purchasing heated water buckets to keep your animals' water from freezing may prove to be a worthwhile investment. Tank heaters are another alternative to switching out frozen buckets. Be sure to always install them properly per guidelines to reduce the risk of a possible fire!

Nutritional Energy Requirements Of Livestock Feed In Winter

The maintenance nutritional requirements of livestock animals can vary greatly during the winter months and cold weather. So many things factor in. I will try and simplify things and make them easily understandable.

If a animal becomes wet and if there is much wind during the winter weather it will cause a needed increase in the nutrients you are providing. It is important for you to research the 'lowest critical environment temperatures' (LCT) for your specific livestock. LCT varies by species. So always research what the LCT is for your specific livestock animals or pets.

20 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit are often used for the LCT for dry livestock, meaning that these are the lowest temperatures they can tolerate without needing additional nutrients to meet their daily requirements. For every degree the windchill falls below the LCT, an animals energy requirements increase by 1%.

60 degrees Fahrenheit is the LCT for wet livestock. The rule is slightly different with wet livestock. For every degree the windchill drops below the animals LCT the additional nutrient requirement increases by 2%.

Additional energy can be given by way of grain or roughage. Roughage generally meaning, hay. Grain can get very costly. Hay prices tend to get higher in the winter months as the demand grows. Depending on your location you may find it very difficult to get a good bargain on either when you are in need. Remember, I said it is important to know if you can handle the financial burden of livestock before committing to it. Imagine the cost for a decent sized herd of cattle if the temperatures remain in the negatives for any length of time.

Roughage is usually the choice over grain for energy because it releases heat when it is digested. The cost of roughage is much lower than grain. However you may find in winter it is hard to obtain good hay. Specifically, first cutting hay. First cutting is the most nutrient rich. You may opt to choose corn, barley, wheat, or oats if hay is not an option.

Research is important, as grain supplementation rates will vary between each livestock species. I could list them for you but this article would become very monotonous and boring.

Several smaller feedings of grain throughout the day is safer and more effective than one large feeding. Even if the predicted temperatures incicate that 100% increase should be given. Feeding all at once is not safe for the animal. With pets and livestock alike, dietary changes should always be gradual increases.

For goats and horses you may consider covering them with a blanket. This helps aid in energy loss by sheltering them from the cold temperatures. You will need to take extra care to make sure the blanket stays dry at all times.

Positioned appropriately to provide a windbreak in winter.
Positioned appropriately to provide a windbreak in winter.

Feeding Livestock In Winter

Increases in feed amounts should be gradual, and it is beneficial to feed livestock by hand to get an idea of your animals' appetite and overall health. This will alert you to any worrisome changes. In most cases people opt for a large group feeding or 'drop and run' feeding rituals for winter.

Yes, it can be daunting to dredge through wet snow, freezing wind chill and mud to feed. But unsupervised feeding will not keep you abreast of appetite changes. While group feedings will save you time in winter weather, you will often miss noting any important health changes with your animals.

I am not a fan of the 'drop and run' method for several reasons. I find it rude. Might sound funny but you would not want me tossing a biscuit on the floor for you in the morning, right? All our animals, including livestock, deserve attention.

Another big problem is that animals fed directly on the ground waste 50% of the hay they are given. If you are going to waste 50% of your livestock's feed, you may as well walk to your trash can and throw money in it!

The same is true of animals fed too much during one feeding versus the several small feedings I discussed earlier. Grain is not cheap. Put it to best effect by timing smaller feeds appropriately.

If you opt for group feeding, you need to make sure each animal has enough head space to get a fair share of the feed. It will be beneficial to break your livestock up into smaller groups based on nutritional needs. This will allow you to better control ~ and properly manage ~ feedings.

Pregnant livestock need much more attention in winter than other animals. It is best to separate immature pregnant livestock for feedings. Doelings, and heifers that are pregnant not only need to maintain themselves and keep growing. They must also grow and nurture the fetus they are carrying. If proper nutrition is not maintained, you can expect the possibility of stunted animals. Or weak or dead fetuses and poor milk production. None of which are good turnouts.

Do not forget the minerals in winter. Keep trace minerals and generalized salt minerals protected from the weather and available at all times. While cattle and horses do well with salt blocks, you will find crumbles are best for goats and sheep.

Sheltering livestock from the winter elements is vital.
Sheltering livestock from the winter elements is vital.

Shelter For Livestock In Winter

You'd enjoy letting livestock frolic free in the pasture all day. But it is best in winter to bring them in under cover. Really this does not require a lengthy explanation on my part.

Your livestock animals need to be out of the harsh conditions. A barn or suitable building in the best place to keep them warm. Natural shelter and windbreaks are also helpful. Providing shelter for livestock will help limit the amount of additional nutrient consumption required.

Despite any inconvenience, it is safest to shelter your livestock. Consider the winter weather getting extreme while your animals are out to pasture and you are unable to get to them. This could cause your animals to freeze to death, break a leg, or even become lost. Anything can happen in winter. So be prepared to create a safe and warm environment for your animals.

Watch how your animals are walking. They may need hoof care.
Watch how your animals are walking. They may need hoof care.

Health Management And Hoof Care For Livestock In Winter

Please take care and make sure your animals are prepared for winter.

  • Have any vaccinations they may need.
  • De-worming and supplements are crucial if needed as well.
  • There are also species-specific lice you will need to watch for in winter. These lice often enjoy infesting livestock in winter months as a way to escape the cold.
  • The overwintering phase of internal parasitic infestations due to contamination that occurred in spring.

A veterinarian will be able to direct you on the proper care for all the above. During harsh winter climates it maybe hard to reach your veterinarian. Depending on the winter weather, you may not even have the ability to run to the store for supplies. So prepare in advance.

  • Exercise.

Yes, it is cold and wet outside but livestock needs to exercise anyway. Try varying the locations of food and water to make sure they are moving around frequently during winter. This is key for hoof care! If an animal becomes to sedentary the hooves will often become overgrown. Overgrown hooves can lead to serious health issues if not taken care of.

  • Hoof care.

Trimming hooves regularly, proper diet and eliminating mud and manure (mucking on a regular basis) will all assist in keeping hooves in good condition! As a general rule it is good to do hoof checks everyday during the winter months.

Consider bringing your animals into the barn, with a smaller pasture accessible for exercise.
Consider bringing your animals into the barn, with a smaller pasture accessible for exercise.

Mud, Muck And Terrain Concerns For Livestock

This is simple. Reducing the mud and muck your livestock animals and pets are tromping through will help keep them dry, and help eliminate some general health concerns during winter.

  • Livestock animals can end up with medical issues around the hooves.
  • Dogs may develop infections in the pads on their feet.
  • Keeping all animals, livestock and pets clean and dry at all times is key to ensuring good health.

Terrain can be rough in winter.

  • Watch for fallen trees or anything that could trip livestock causing them injury. (And even yourself.)
  • Fresh snow can cause many terrain concerns to be camouflaged.
  • Take care of any issues as soon as they arise.
  • Clearing any debris in fall is a good way to help prevent issues for livestock in the winter months.

Did you realize how much work was involved raising livestock in winter?

See results
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Farnam Horseshoer's Secret Pelleted Hoof Supplements, Promotes healthy hoof growth, maintains hoof walls & supports cracked hooves, 11 lbs., 30 day supply
There are hoof supplements on the market, I suggest discussing with your fierier and/or veterinarian the best action to take if you have any concerns.

Caring For Livestock

You may realize at this point, caring for livestock can be much more work than you initially thought. Before you decide 'they'll be okay' without going to the effort of caring for them, particularly during winter, think of the money. If you do not properly take care of your animals it will only hurt you financially.

It is much more cost effective to take care of your animals, than to pay large vet bills when your animals became sick. Make sure you take care of them properly!

Researching livestock needs may seem overwhelming, but the effort is well spent. Each animal is absolutely different and unique. Local agriculture extensions offices are a great resource for anyone interested in farming and raising livestock. If you want to take on a large number of animals, having a veteran farmer as your mentor is an amazing benefit.

I recommend you choose a veterinarian for their care before acquiring livestock. You'll need advice and, occasionally, assistance. Caring for livestock during winter (and other months, to be honest) is a lot more work than many inexperienced hobby farmers would have you think. So do your research, choose wisely, and take good care of your animals.

© 2015 Cynthia Hoover


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