Well. Here we are, a week-and-a-half before Christmas, and it was -4⁰ F. outside when I got up this morning. Why is this important, you may ask? Because today I am really wishing I had bought those heated buckets and an armload of heat lamps last summer when it was still warm. Isn’t hindsight wonderful?
Thankfully, it is nice and sunny out, and there’s no wind, so the animals don’t appear to be suffering from my lack of foresight. They even seem to be enjoying the sun after it snowed all day yesterday—though a few of them are shivering a little. All of them look really furry, like little bears, and they are very hungry on days like this!
Fortunately, we don’t have to worry overmuch about the goats or horses being cold. A little shivering during cold weather is normal and serves to generate heat. Ruminants generate a great deal of body heat digesting their hay, so as long as they have shelter from wind and rain, they will be cozy and warm most of the time. I had actually put one of my dog’s fancy quilted winter coats on one of my older goats yesterday, because she’s been a bit down and not eating as usual. Since it didn’t have leg straps, it kept twisting around her middle as she moved, so I finally removed it this afternoon. She looked at me as if to say, “Thank goodness you got rid of that thing!” Then she ran through the gate to go eat off the haystack.
Like goats, horses also generate heat from their digestive process, though they are not ruminants. They are uniquely adapted to cold weather, having wonderful coats that keep them warm and dry. Their guard hairs and undercoat fluff up to form an insulating layer of warm air next to the skin, and their hair growth pattern naturally sheds water so it doesn’t penetrate their coats. In addition, the hair on their rumps is denser, so it is more protective when they turn away from the wind. As long as they have plenty of hay to eat and shelter from wind and rain, most will not require more protection from the cold. They can also tolerate standing in cold temperatures, because their lower legs and hooves do not have a large number of exposed blood vessels that lose heat to the air.
You will note I said animals must have shelter from wind and rain. Those two elements will quickly cause an animal’s natural defenses against the weather to fail, and they can die from hypothermia, no matter how healthy they are. Shelter doesn’t have to be fancy. A good run-in shed where they can get out of the wind and rain will usually serve them adequately. In addition, any shelter needs to be well-ventilated. If it is closed-up tight, dangerous levels of ammonia fumes from decomposing manure, urine, and bedding can cause severe lung damage from pneumonia. Take a good sniff when you walk through. If you can smell ammonia, it’s even worse down where they goats are. Closed buildings housing ruminants such as goats also build up a great deal of condensation during cold weather, unless they have a good flow of air. Ever been rained on indoors? It’s not a good thing, either, and shows your air quality may not be up to snuff.
What about those horse rugs and goat coats you spent a boatload of money on? You probably won’t need them, unless your animals are clipped (some horses do need various types of body clips during cold weather to help them cool out after strenuous work) or they have to spend time outdoors in the rain (i.e. you live in Seattle—I used to, and horse rugs were invaluable during bad weather. I would far rather throw my horse rugs in the washer occasionally than have to deal with rain rot.) Having a good winter coat of hair, being accustomed to the cold, and being healthy and well-fed are the best defenses your animals have against bad weather. Putting blankets on animals that don’t need them can even be detrimental, because it will cause them to overheat and then chill when the blankets are removed. At the least, blankets and sheets weigh down their hair coats, so they may not be as warm.
Aside from horses needing protection because they are clipped or they live under a waterfall, the main reason why horses are blanketed is to keep them CLEAN! It’s true. They love to roll in the dirt—or mud—anytime they can. Sheets and blankets can save a humongous amount of grooming time. That equals more riding time for you.
All livestock benefits from having warm water to drink during frigid weather. Having heated buckets will save you a great deal of time chopping ice without the hazard of using a bucket heater, or the effort of hauling buckets of hot water from the house. It will also mean the animals drink more, so they don’t become dehydrated. Alternatives include using insulated, covered buckets, and some of those are good. Just remember, regardless of which system you use, any exposed wiring must be covered so animals can’t chew on it. Be assured that, goats and horses being the curious critters they are, they WILL chew on wires if they can.
Infrared lamps are a good idea too, because they do not heat the surrounding air, only whatever they are shining directly on, such as animals taking shelter beneath them. This can be a real help when temperatures are as extreme as I encountered this morning. The animals using them will not become overheated, as they might with blankets, or suffer bad air, as in an enclosed building, plus they will naturally move away from the heat if it becomes uncomfortable. Very young or old animals will especially benefit, because it is more difficult for them to regulate their body temperatures. Your animals will be warm and have fresh air at the same time.
One other useful idea during frigid weather is to feed smaller feedings of hay more frequently. The animals will actually eat more than if you fed more but less often. Since having lots of good bacterial action in their guts will help keep your animals warm, it’s something to strive for. I realize many people won’t be able to do this, as you must be away from home during the day, but if you can, it will pay off. Try to make sure you’ve got enough hay on hand to make it through any bad weather, too. Nothing is worse than having to haul hay during a blizzard!
While we’re at it, don’t neglect taking care of yourself. All the preparation in the world won’t be worth a nickel if you haven’t got good protective clothing for working outside in the cold. This includes a good quality waterproof, insulated jacket with a hood (my Original Mountain Horse Jacket is worth its weight in gold), a couple of good hats to pull down over your ears, a couple pair of gloves, preferably leather or neoprene with a thermal lining (such as Thinsulate), some good insulated boots (believe it or not, the best I’ve ever worn are Mudruckers) to keep your feet warm, and some good quality boot socks (Smartwool is great). You’ll want to invest in a couple good pairs of long johns, too! And why a couple of each? Because you’ll need an extra set for when one is wet or in the laundry basket.
Lastly, don’t forget to care for the wild creatures that share our space. You don’t have to go off the deep end, but having a clean source of free-running water will help many animals, and some bird and suet feeders will go a long way to help our little feathered friends when there’s snow on the ground. They are pretty good at rustling up a meal on their own most of the time, but many birds (not all migrate) die of exposure during very cold weather.
Have a wonderful winter holiday—and stay toasty!
P.S. There’s nothing like a nice warm drink of your own when you come back inside. I occasionally enjoy an Irish coffee, and here’s how I make it:
Pour about 6 oz. hot coffee into an 8 oz. coffee mug. Add 1 Tbsp white granulated sugar and a jigger (+/- 2 oz.) of your favorite Irish whiskey (I like Bushmills) and stir. Top with a dollop of whipped cream, and enjoy! Time to make? About 2 minutes!
If you’re a non-alcoholic person, I also love a cup of hot Chai topped with whipped cream. You can buy good readymade Chai or make your own from one of the great tea blends from the supermarket, such as Market Spice Tea or Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice tea (my two favorites). Keep some made-up in the fridge and microwave to heat. Otherwise, it’s always hard to beat good, old-fashioned hot chocolate!