Preparing Your Herd for WinterWinter can be one of the hardest seasons to keep animals. If you can make it through your first winter on a farm and still be joyful about animal husbandry, then you know you’re a farmer at heart!
Before we decide to add any animal to our farm, we considered winter and its unique set of obstacles. We asked ourselves these three questions:
- Are we able and willing to safely house this animal from the elements?
- Are we able and willing to provide a constant clean water source?
- Are we able and willing to provide food that will accommodate the animal’s needs throughout the winter?
One of the most important parts of these three questions is the “willing” part. Before adding animals to your lives I want you to picture a -5º F winter day. Imagine it just snowed 14 inches over night, it’s still dark and you have to crawl out of bed, bundle up in your snowsuit, shovel the path to the barn, haul buckets of water out to the herd, perhaps milk your does and distribute hay.
If you’re honest with yourself, and know you can do this, then welcome to the world of raising livestock! In my opinion, the work is worth the joy of keeping our goats and I’m sure many of you will agree.
So, now on to the logistics…
If you live in an area where temperatures are below freezing for most of the winter months, then you need to have a plan to keep your herds water from freezing. Our goats refuse to break through even a small amount of ice on the top of the water, so as soon as the temps start dropping we get out the heated waterers.
We use plastic pails that hang, found at most animal supply stores. There is a coiled heating element in the bottom of the pail. The cord is wound in a spiral of wire to prevent chewing and electrocution. We hang the pails on the outside of the stalls and the goats have to put their heads through the fence rails to get a drink.
Keeping the water outside the goat area prevents them from chewing the wire, or heating element, bumping the bucket or unplugging it. When mixing goats and any type of plugs/wires/electricity use extreme caution. Goats love to chew, and can be very rambunctious and destructive. Accidents can happen very easily so use lots of precaution. Check waterers often to make sure they are working properly.
The second thing to consider is how you are going to get water to your goats in the winter. We have to empty out and wind up our hoses that run to the barn in the winter time or they’ll freeze and crack. If you have a large enough herd, it might be beneficial to run a water system under the freeze level out to your goat area. If that’s not possible, then you will have to bring water to your herd at least twice a day from the house.
We fill several five gallon buckets with lids from our back bathroom bathtub and haul them out on a wagon or sled if there’s snow accumulation.
Ice storms, blizzards, freezing rain… we loose our power a lot in the winter time. Unfortunately, that means we also don’t have water as an electric pump runs our well.
Have a plan for power outages. We have a generator that keeps our heated waterers and well running, but if that’s not in your budget, you might need to install a hand pump. At the very least, store some water in your basement or crawl space for emergencies and be prepared to take the ice off the pails several times a day.
Shoveling Paths to the Barn
Also think about how your yard is set up. Do you get a lot of snowfall in your area? You’ll have to have paths to get out to the barns and outbuildings where your herd is. Can you hand shovel it? Or would a snow blower be a better choice in your situation?
Also, if you are constructing a goat shelter from scratch, think about placement in relation to the house. Can you easily run extension cords? Haul water? Etc.?
The second most important thing you need to prepare for is a source of hay that will last you through the winter, till the new hay is cut.
We are blessed in that we have our own hay field that we hay ourselves. We store our hay harvest in our barn away from the elements and it lasts us through the winter.
If you don’t hay your own field, then you will need to source hay. You should have a rough idea of how much your herd consumes through the summer months, then add about a third to that count. Goats eat more hay in the winter because they don’t have access to pasture. They also expend more energy trying to keep warm.
If you have a dry, clean area away from your goats to store your hay, then I recommend stocking up for the winter before the seasons change. I don’t recommend buying what you need week to week. In our area, hay can run out, especially in the spring before the first cutting.
If you don’t have the space to store hay for the whole winter, work with a hay farmer (or several) be willing to pay them in advance to hold your hay throughout the winter.
Hay should be stored in a clean, dry space. Dry, ventilation is also important. DO NOT stack damp hay as it can begin to compost and has been known to heat up and even be a fire hazard.
If you have a dirt floor barn, raise the first layer of hay off the ground using 4x4 boards or pallets. The ground will draw moisture and cause mold.
DO NOT feed moldy hay to goats.
Additional Dietary Considerations
Minerals- When it comes to caring for goats, goats need mineral supplements year round, but it’s especially important in the winter when the goats aren’t eating fresh green pasture. Manna Pro Goat Mineral is an excellent vitamin and mineral supplement, formulated specifically for goat health. It can be fed free choice and is terrific when it comes to fostering optimal reproduction and show appearance.
We also feed Manna Pro Goat Balancer once or twice a week, to give our herd the boost and balance they might need in their diets.
We also include a handful of black oiler sunflower seeds to the grain ration in the winter. The seeds offer healthy fats, lends needed oils to the skin and coat and helps produce lanolin in our fiber goats which protects fiber and skin from the elements.
You can also offer your goats healthy, goat appropriate kitchen scraps or goat treats. Pumpkin is a wonderful, healthy treat as well as Manna Pro Goat Treats, a nutritious snack for goats of all ages!
Goats are rather sturdy creatures when it comes to farm animals. However, we believe that the more care and compassion you invest in your animals, the healthier and happier they will be leading to better production and less problems.
When keeping goats in the winter, we do all that is possible to button up our barn before winter to keep them safe and warm. We put up plywood against the west side of the barn where the wind hits the hardest. We also make sure they have a fresh, clean layer of straw to lie on at all times.
We practice the deep liter method with our herd. Once the cold begins, we continue to layer clean straw on top of the old straw. The straw underneath begins to compost and releases heat that keeps the barn nice and toasty. However, when you’re blocking drafts be sure to create an area of ventilation when using the deep liter method.
In the spring, the whole barn is mucked out and under the clean straw layer is rich, useable compost that we put into our garden.
Know a bit about the region your breed of goat comes from.
We raise Angora goats, Alpines and Nubians. Angora goats grow a thick wool coat similar to sheep. This mohair keeps our Angora goats warm in the winter. Alpines are from the Alps, this breed of goat is used to cooler climate. Nubians, on the other hand, are from Africa. While our Nubians handle the cold rather well, we do keep in mind that they may not be as adaptive when it comes to cold weather.
Keep them Dry
Maybe more important than warmth is dry shelter. Damp, wet shelter is a perfect recipe for pneumonia.
We just roofed our barn to stop leaks and to keep our hay harvest nice and dry.
Some things to think about before winter hits.
If you raise Angora goats, they should be shorn twice a year. We shear in March and September. Be sure to shear about a month before your predicted frost date for your area. This will give the goat ample time to re-grow enough of a fleece to keep warm in the cold weather.
Fall is breeding season. Get out your calendar and decide when would be a good time for goat babies to arrive. Goat gestation is about 5 months. We introduce our bucks on Halloween each year for April babies.
Source a buck for stud service if you don’t keep your own.
Keep an eye on your does for signs of heat.
For more information on breeding goats, visit my post Caring for Pregnant Does, Part 1
With a little preparation, and a plan, raising goats in winter can be a rewarding experience. Many nights Zach and I bundle up and go sit out in the straw with our herd. The goats love to curl up with us and snuggle in the warm barn. It’s a great season to get to know your goats on a more intimate level. If winter is getting you down, there’s always the promise of spring…where all the babies help you forget the struggles of winter. It’s a wonderful sort of amnesia that continues the cycle of life on a farm.
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