Winter animal care: Tips to keeping your animals healthy and happy during winter months

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Being prepared during cold, winter weather will help your livestock winter a little easier.

Cold temperatures can cause some challenges in small and hobby farm livestock barns, but using some easy techniques you can manage your livestock successfully during the winter months.

Water

Ensuring your animals have access to fresh, clean water is essential to their health. Livestock cannot meet their water requirements by eating snow. Waterers should be regularly cleaned to help reduce the number of bacteria, fecal matter, and other solids that may build up over time and affect the taste of the water. Water consumption is affected by numerous factors such as animal size, diet, productivity, and the season. Dehydration can be fatal to animals.

In the winter, battling frozen water buckets and tanks can be a challenge. By using immersible tank heaters, heated buckets, or automatic waterers, water is kept ice-free, and at a temperature the animal is comfortable drinking.

Products that utilize electricity, such as immersible tank heaters and heated buckets, should be checked with a voltmeter to ensure there is no current running through the water. Any electrical current will deter animals from drinking from the water tank or bucket. By inserting one end of the voltmeter in the water tank and the other into the ground, you will get a reading that will indicate if there is a problem. Make sure to check for electric current often.

North Dakota State University bulletin, “Livestock Water Requirements,” features an easy to use chart for water consumption rates for beef cattle, dairy cattle, horses, sheep, and swine during various stages of development. This tool can help you determine not just enough water for your animals, but also if your animals are consuming enough water.

Water quality will also affect the amount of water livestock will consume. Water quality can be impacted by contaminants such as salts, excessive nutrients, or bacteria. It is important to have your water tested to determine if it contains contaminants that may impact your livestock. In Michigan, testing for private wells is the responsibility of the well owner. Water tests can be done by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy certified laboratory, or your local health department may provide testing.

Housing

Most animals need some shelter during the winter months; however, their natural winter coats allow them to endure cold temperatures. Providing shelter or wind breaks that can be easily accessed by animals is key. Humans oftentimes are prone to making the winter environment for their animals too warm, which is unhealthy for animals.

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following factors to consider when evaluating the housing of your animals:

  • Air quality: Ventilation to help dispel respiration gasses and manure odor is important. Depending on the type of barn you have, there are various ways the barn can be ventilated. Ridge vents are more prevalent in newer barns and are based on the premise that heat rises. Older barns may require opening doors or windows to allow for air circulation. Poorly ventilated spaces can cause irritation in the animals’ lungs and lead to respiratory infections such as pneumonia. If you notice condensation on walls or ceilings, that is a good indication your air isn’t ventilating enough for the number of animals occupying the space. You will need to adjust accordingly.
  • Dry bedding areas: Dry bedding provides insulation from the cold ground, helps preserve body heat, and minimizes stress. There are many options for bedding you can use including straw and wood shavings, and with cattle you can use corn stover or similar crop residues for cows and bulls. Overall, livestock bedding should be comfortable, clean, and absorbent.
  • Feed: Animals must maintain their energy reserves to endure cold temperatures. Before the weather gets cold, asses the body condition of each animal and adjust the nutrition they are receiving to adequately prepare them to thrive in winter conditions. It is critical to continue to assess body condition scores throughout the winter, as it may be necessary to increase the amounts of good quality feed and forages. Supplying adequate amounts of feed is essential in your animal’s well-being through the winter months.