Make certain animals are in good physical condition before cold weather sets in. Here are some general guidelines to make sure they stay healthy!
Ruminants (goats, sheep, cows) and hind-gut fermenters (horses, rabbits) produce heat by digesting long-stem forage. When weather is especially cold, extra hay will help keep the animals warm. Elderly, pregnant or working animals will need extra food in wintertime. Keep in mind, though, that the more hay (dry matter) animals consume, the more water they will need to drink.
Without adequate water intake, animals may stop eating; horses can become impacted and colicky. All animals will drink more if their water is fresh, and in very cold weather, slightly warmed . If you use a tank heater or de-icer to keep water from freezing, be absolutely certain they are working correctly and there aren’t voltage leaks that can shock (or even kill) animals trying to drink. If necessary break up and remove surface ice from water tanks and buckets by hand; you can make a simple tool for breaking up the ice on the surface by sinking a bolt half-way into the end of a wooden dowel, about the size of a closet pole. Cut it to a length that’s comfortable for you. After the ice is broken up, use an inexpensive mesh sieve to remove the ice chunks. If the weather is so cold that water in tanks is frozen solid, offer water in several smaller, flexible black rubber buckets. You can then get the ice out easily by turning the bucket upside down or even throwing the whole thing down hard on the ground (very satisfying and cathartic!) and the bucket won’t break – unlike the rigid plastic kinds. If you don’t have too many animals, it’s nice to carry hot water in empty plastic gallon-size milk cartons out to add to cold water to warm it up.
Keeping a salt block or loose mineral salts available at all times will encourage drinking. Make sure that if you have sheep, you do not offer the red salt blocks or minerals that contain copper; these are suitable for horses, cows, and goats, but can be deadly to sheep.
Dry, cold weather is better tolerated than cold, damp weather, and animals often enjoy cold days if they have a good hair or wool coat and aren’t allowed to become wet. Dry, safe shelters are essential, and need to be well ventilated, but without drafts; you should not be able to feel the wind blowing through the shelter. Ammonia buildup in dirty stalls can cause respiratory irritation and infection, so make sure bedding doesn’t become too damp with urine, particularly if you use the “deep litter” method and allow uneaten hay to build up as bedding through the winter. If animals are kept inside barns through the worst weather, letting them out to exercise whenever the weather permits is important. Animals should take winter weather in stride if care is taken to minimize stressors, provide proper nutrition and shelter, and animals have access to plenty of clean water at all times.
Elderly animals and animals who have trouble maintaining weight may not be able to sustain adequate body temperature, even with shelter and hay. In particular, the combination of being wet and cold can be deadly. At SGF, we keep coats on our horse and donkey when the weather goes below 25 degrees, or is 35 degrees and wet. Dee Dee Donkey is 40 years old and has old lady teeth, so she needs extra warmth – in the worst winter weather, we put an additional layer underneath her waterproof blanket. Our elderly goats also have trouble with the cold; we have found that generally the extra large sized dog coats work well, although some goats will need a small pony coat. Mr. Newman Goat has both an undershirt as well as a waterproof outer jacket for the very cold days. We had a blanket custom-made for Louisa the llama at a very reasonable price and because she is elderly and a single-coated llama, she is more prone to getting chilled. Again, we only use this when the weather goes below 20 degrees, so that she does not overheat and become sweaty. Make sure you take measurements and go shopping BEFORE the cold weather rolls in.