If you’re anything like me, that first chilly breeze in September will send you into flashbacks of slipping on ice, busting out water buckets, and trekking hay through the deep snow.
While there are ways to make wintertime more enjoyable (skijoring anyone?), the cold can be downright miserable for farmers, ranchers, homesteaders, and critters alike.
Wondering how to keep cattle warm in winter? Or how to keep goats warm in winter? You’ve come to the right place.
Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned while homesteading in the Salish Mountains of Northwestern Montana.
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How to Keep Farm Animals Warm In Winter – 11 Tips
- Choose the right breed of farm animal (some breeds tolerate cold better than others).
- Build a shelter or improve your existing farm animal shelter.
- Add additional insulation with a layer of plywood or metal.
- Curtain your windows and doors with plexiglass, plastic sheeting, or even a shower curtain.
- Add heat bricks or use the hot-water-bucket method
- Add a heat lamp, with caution.
- Use the Deep Litter Method inside your coops and pens.
- Give your animals extra feed and up the protein content.
- Buy yourself a heated water bucket.
- Eliminate mud inside your animal shelters and inside runs and paddocks.
- Bring the smaller animals indoors.
Full details of each method, including a step-by-step walkthrough of the Deep Litter Method and our recommendation for heat lamps and heated water buckets, below!
1. Choose the Correct Breed of Farm Animal
If you’re still in the research stage and don’t have livestock yet, please take this advice seriously.
The breeds that you buy matter a lot.
Choose breeds that were developed for your specific climate. If you live in a hot, tropical area, find animals bred to tolerate heat, thick humidity, and high levels of moisture.
If you’re in a cold, mountainous, and snowy place, find a breed that originated from a similar environment.
In my little corner of the world, the temperatures can drop into the negative 30s (as in, -34°F). Most local ranchers opt for cold-hardy cattle breeds that tend to tolerate the cold and accumulative snow better than others.
Dexters and Scottish Highlanders are common in my area, though I do see Angus and Herefords too.
Do cows get cold? Do cows need shelter in the winter?
Generally, yes, though some ranchers can provide adequate, alternate means of protection, such as improved feed and wind-walls, rather than full barns being used.
When it comes to poultry, pay attention to their conformation.
Chicken breeds with rose combs or small combs tend to fare better than those with tall single combs.
Feathered feet chickens do tolerate the cold well, but surprisingly enough, snow is a problem.
The snow builds up on their feathers and forms ice and snowballs, or worse, melts when they enter their coop and then refreezes directly to their legs.
Frostbite is painful and damaging for chickens, so take as many preventative steps against it as you can.
2. Create and Improve Shelters to Keep Farm Animals Warm
A thoughtfully crafted shelter is one of the best ways to make winter more tolerable for you and your winter livestock.
At the bare minimum, shelter should consist of three sides and a roof, with one of those sides shielding the animals from prevailing winds.
3. Insulate Your Animals’ Shelter
If you can, add a layer of insulation and then plywood or metal on the inside of your animal barns.
The insulation keeps the shelter warmer, and the plywood or metal protects the insulation from your animals.
A winter goat shelter and a winter cattle shelter are typically larger and need more insulation than smaller structures such as henhouses, but the price and effort are worth the outcome and heat saved.
4. Curtain Doorways and Windows
While closing the barn door overnight does help retain heat, your animals still need exercise and access to their run during the day.
Hang an animal insulation sheet, also known as a livestock strip curtain, from the doorway to hold in heat for your animals. A shower curtain is a surprisingly good solution if you can’t find an official door draft stopper.
If you have open-air windows, consider covering them with plexiglass or even glass windows. If neither of those options is available to you, plastic sheeting or another shower curtain is a good alternative.
5. Add Heat Bricks
For smaller animals, throw a brick or stone paver in your oven or near your woodstove or fireplace to heat it up. Set the hot rock inside your shelter, and it will radiate heat for several hours.
You can also pour boiling or near-boiling water into a five-gallon bucket with a lid and set it in the middle of your building. The hot water bucket produces more heat for longer.
But, if you’re clumsy or have icy terrain to cover between you and your animals, I would suggest the rock method over water.
If you use the hot rock method for your henhouse, be sure to cover the rocks with boards or plastic wrap. Your hens will want to sit on the rocks and will poop all over them.
I can assure you that while “hot chicken poop” is authentically “farmhouse,” it’s not a scent that I foresee Bath and Body Works picking up anytime soon.
6. Heat Lamps to Keep Farm Animals Warm In Winter
Heat lamps are an option, though a risky one at that. It’s best to avoid heat lamps altogether, but I understand that isn’t feasible for everyone.
Still, consider moving your calving, lambing, hatching, and kidding season to when additional heat sources aren’t needed.
While there are no true safe heat lamps for barns, some products are better than others.
The $10-20 heat lamps that you can find in your local hardware or ranch supply store are usually poorly made.
I opt for the Prima Heat Lamp from Premier1. Yes, it is a more expensive piece of equipment, but I figure if it can save my animals’ lives or my barns, it’s well worth the investment.
High-output carbon fiber bulbs produce 4-6 times more heat than conventional bulbs. 98% of watts used become heat. Unique internal tilt switch turns the lamp off if it is on an unsafe angle.
Includes a reflecting cone that directs the heat downwards, towards your livestock. Wire grill prevents them from touching the bulbs.
7. Consider the Deep Litter Method
The Deep Litter Method is called lazy by some and genius by others.
I use it for barns with dirt floors and skip it for the barns with stall mats. I also use it in my henhouse’s chicken run.
The Built-Up Litter System is very similar to garden composting.
Basically, you toss a carbon-based material over your animals’ existing manure rather than scraping out the waste and replacing it with bedding.
This practice generates a lot of heat and insulation for the floor of your animal’s buildings, which can do a lot to help keep them warm during the winter.
Throughout the winter, you make a not-so-delicious lasagna of manure and bedding materials. When the first signs of spring come around, you remove all the layers and clean your coop. Then you can slowly start the process over again.
The carbon in the bedding mixes with the manure’s nitrogen, which generates heat while making compost. And wonderfully enough, the compost will be ready just in time for your spring garden.
For henhouses, the Deep Litter Method is incredibly beneficial. Your hens will keep turning over and aerating the litter, making it healthy and effective.
Inside the waste, decompositional microbes will create vitamin B12 and vitamin K, which your hens will ingest as they scratch through the bedding.
How to Use the Deep Litter Method
- Start with six inches of finely chopped pine bedding.
- While you can use hay, straw, leaves, grass clippings, pine needles, or other carbon-based bedding materials, sawdust is the best option. Sawdust is small, easily workable, absorbent, and seems to break down at the perfect speed.
- Every day when you go out to feed and water your animals, take a pitchfork (Truper’s manure pitchfork is awesome!) or a shovel and turn the bedding over. You want the fresh manure underneath the carbon bedding.
- As the winter progresses, sprinkle in more bedding, and keep turning the mixture over.
- If you’re deep littering your henhouse, toss some scratch grains on the floor, and your ladies will be happy to help you with the turnover.
- I toss the dirty bedding out into the most commonly walked areas, especially the chicken run, to combat mud during the summer. The deep litter method produces far too much heat for the warm months anyway.
8. Up the Protein and Forage
All animals need more feed during the cold months. While forage is better than grain, grain and other supplements have their applications too. You should supplement low-quality forage with a protein-dense grain or supplement for optimal health.
So, give them more forage to take their mind off the cold and warm their bodies slightly. Also, feed them more protein to fuel the fantastic little rumen microbes that help them digest that forage.
The microbes use a form of fermentation to digest the forage, and this fermentation produces a considerable amount of heat for the animal as a result.
Be sure to increase how much hay or other roughage you feed during the cold spells, especially during cold snaps and overnight.
If you feed twice a day as I do, make the evening feeding more significant. Feed as much as you can without having leftovers or waste.
Overnight and early morning is likely the coldest part of the day, so your animals will appreciate the food during this time.
9. Water, Water, Water
You should always provide clean, fresh, thawed water to your animals at all times.
I used to have a horse pasture that didn’t have electricity or running water, and winter was absolutely miserable. Every two hours, I would check on my horses, knock the ice out of the water, and add more water that I trucked in as needed.
Now I have heated water buckets and feel that I’m living a life of luxury.
But before that, I’ve kept duplicates of every water bucket on the farm; I swapped out the frozen buckets out for thawed ones, letting the frozen ones sit in the mudroom until the ice melted.
If you have buckets, find rubber ones that you can throw down on the ground to bust the ice out of. Otherwise, you’ll need to carry buckets inside your house to melt like I did.
This Farm Innovators oversized 5 Gallon (24 Quart) heated bucket (they have other sizes too) will keep water from freezing during the winter. It features a 120-watt built-in heater which is thermostatically controlled to operate only when necessary.
10. Eliminate the Mud
If you’re like me and live in a cold enough climate where the ground freezes solid and stays that way until spring, you’ve got it made.
If not, you have to fight the mud one way or another. Mud is detrimental to animal health, mobility, and overall cleanliness. Here is a handy article that shows you how to combat the mud.
Even if you don’t have mud during the winter, take the time to clean your animals up before the cold hits. Matted, muddy hair is not an effective insulator and can even create sore spots on your critters.
If you have a warm room to wash your animal in, use it. If not, a brush and some elbow grease will work just fine.
11. Sneak the Small Critters Inside
When temperatures drop really low, and the wind picks up speed, you may want to bring the little animals inside. Throw on your largest, most inconspicuous coat and carefully sneak past your spouse.
I’m not speaking from experience here, of course.
Bathtubs are a good place, and so are old baby playpens and rubber totes by the woodstove.
Hold them inside just long enough for the coldest period to pass, and send them back to their barn.
Keep an eye on them after being transferred back outside to ensure they don’t go into shock or get worse.
How do you keep your farm animals warm in winter? Any tips for fellow readers? Let us know in the comments below!