One of the best parts of living in Wisconsin is our wide range of seasons. Well, at least I think so. When it comes to winter, I often get questions on how my goats handle the cold weather and snow. They do just fine.
In November our weather will usually start to make the transition to winter with temps in the teens to single digits, snowfalls are common. January through February is usually our coldest weather of the season with temperatures usually in the single digits or below zero. Often there’s a stretch of weather -25, which usually lasts only a few days. In March the weather starts to gradually warm-up.
It Starts with the Herd
Livestock are a lot heartier than we may think. While my goats are farm animals, goats themselves in the wild original as mountain animals. They originally were designed to live in a rugged environment with a range of temperatures, including cold weather.
On our farm, we’ve bred in the Kiko breed to help build a heartier herd (which is a Boer-Kiko cross), that thrive on pasture and is self-sufficient, including handling nature’s elements.
Transitioning to Winter
We help our goats adjust to winter by keeping them outside on pasture as long as possible as the weather transitions from fall to winter. This helps their bodies adjust to the temperatures and grow a thick coat to help keep them warm throughout winter. At first, they aren’t fans of the temperature change and they’ll bleat at me about it. Then, after a few weeks later, they’ll be adjusted and don’t make much of a fuss.
During this time, they’ll still have access to pasture shelters, which keeps them dry and blocks them from the wind. We’ll bed those shelters with straw to keep it clean and dry.
Additionally, we feed hay in the winter. The hay ferments in their rumen, creating heat for the animals, helping them stay warm from within. Between their body heat and snuggling together, they keep fairly warm in the shelters.
Once our weather is consistently in the single digits, we’ll transition the herd to the barn for their winter shelter. We have a flap on the door to keep block the wind and keep snow out. They would do fine in their pasture shelters as long as they’re kept bedded and dry. We have the barn, so we choose to use it.
The herd will continue to feed on round bales out in the pasture, to make sure they are getting adequate exercise and help keep the barn cleaner. As a side benefit of feeding outside the leftover hay and goat fertilizer helps our pasture thrive the next season by adding to the seedbed and providing more nutrients.
With exposure to fresh air, they also tend to have fewer respiratory issues. Moving back and forth from the feeders to the barn also helps them generate more body heat.
In the Barn
While the goats have full access to the barn, we will bed their pens regularly to make sure it stays clean and dry. We keep adding to the bedding throughout the winter season. This “deep pack bedding” acts as an insulator and generates heat as it gradually breaks down at the base.
We’ll also keep an eye on the airflow in the barn and condensation and run our ventilation system when needed as well. We will make sure the barn is free of drafts as well. It’s also important to not have the barn close too “tight” as well. Some flow of fresh air is good.
The water source in our barn is a frost-free hydrant. We don’t use automatic waterers. I like to just use the low 60-gallon tanks or the “muck” tubs for smaller pens. We use drop-in heaters to keep the water from freezing and a heated hose for filling the tanks in the main barn.
In our machine shed, we have an overflow pen, but we don’t have water in that barn. We will use three 100-foot expandable hoses with shut off valves (like the “as seen on TV” hoses) to fill the tank in the other barn from the hydrant. When we are done, we’ll coil up the hose and put it in our heat milk house room in the barn so it doesn’t freeze. This has worked better than hauling buckets or filling a large tank.
Severe Weather: Extreme Cold or Major Snowfall
If we hit a really cold stretch or anticipate a big snowstorm, we may close the barn door and feed the goats inside.
If it's an especially snowy winter, we will also plow paths in the pasture to help the goats get to their hay feeders. We’ll also strategically plow snow to create windbreaks.
We also try to keep an eye on the snow load on the barn roof as well, to make sure we don’t have a collapsed roof issue and then have to figure out how to house our animals while it gets fixed.
We see fewer health issues with our goats in the wintertime than in the summer. High heat, wet summers and temperature swings in the spring are harder on the animals (pneumonia, parasites, other pathogens, etc,).
It may be natural to think that we should keep our goats in an insulated, heated barn, however it can lead to more health problems. An enclosed barn without ventilation can run the risk of respiratory issues such as pneumonia.
We also do not kid in the coldest months in our Wisconsin winters to avoid the risk of pneumonia or hypothermia. There are goat farms who do kid in winter, we just choose not to do so. It’s easier on the goats and ourselves as farmers.
If it is a late “spring” from Mother Nature and kidding as started, we may use jackets for our goats for the first week. Then we will transition them off to help the goats get adjusted to the temperature. In general, jackets are usually not necessary. We’ll also use heat lamps with kidding stalls and infrared heaters in the creep area to keep kids warm and safe from the bigger goats.
Livestock are hearty animals. Ruminants do a great job of keeping themselves warm from within through fermentation in their rumen. As farmers, we make sure they have access to dry, draft-free shelters and they do quite well throughout the winter months.
Products + tools mentioned in article
Drop in tank heaters / deicers: We use a variety of tank heaters depending on the size of the livestock water tank and the placement (is it outdoors, is it near an open door, inside, etc.). I try to size the heater to the tank and also minimize the wattage (check the box for the size) to keep our electric bill down and not overload our electric circuits in the barn.
I prefer to use drop in heaters vs buckets with heaters built in because sooner or later the heater will die. I'd rather replace the heater than everything.
The Perfect Bucket Heater by K&H Pet is my favorite for the muck bucket tanks (see picture). It's small and only uses 80 watts. Why use a big heater if you don't have too?
I also like having a couple extra heaters on hand. I always seem to have one that decides to stop working in early spring when most farm stores stop restocking their shelves with winter supplies.
Heated hose from K&H Pet, 40 ft. We use this at our hydrant to fill our main livestock tank in the winter. We will plug it in before we need to use it and then it's ready to go. Each time we use it we make sure to keep the end that screws on the hydrant "up" so excess water doesn't freeze in the opening, making it hard to unthaw. We've been using this hose year-round for hour seasons.
Expandable hose by XHOSE, 3 100 ft hoses to run from the water hydrant in our main goat barn to our machine shed to all for filling up the water tank in our overflow pen.
When we use heat lamps I really like the Prima Heat Lamp from Premier 1 Supplies since it is durable and has a number of features that make it safer than the traditional heat lamp. Caution should always be used with heat lamps in barns to avoid fires.
I really like the Sweeter Heaters, they're an infrared heater. No lamp, just heat. They're much safer than using a heat lamp, to help avoid the fire risk. A bonus is that they are owned and manufactured by a family in northern Wisconsin!
Collapsible Round Bale Feeder: We use Ketcham's Collapsible Round Bale Feeder for feeding round bales. We have four of them. I wish we had at least two more. I love that they are easy to move by myself without equipment (of course equipment helps), and the best part is that the goats hardly waste any hay.
This blog post was originally published 2/14/20 and was updated 11/30/20.
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