How to care for livestock during winter months

December 15, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER / Special to The Herald-Mail

Old Man Winter has reared his head and folks have taken notice.

I was listening to the radio last week during one of our snow events and a woman was saying how she was preparing for the pending weather and one of her precautions was putting plastic on the windows of the horse barn.

All I could think of was, "are you kidding me?" Sealing up a barn is the worst thing a person can do for livestock.

For the record, barns were primarily built for human comfort, not animal comfort. Don't get me wrong, while animals have survived for centuries without man's help, certain aspects of a barn are good.


A wind break is a function a barn could have, but so can the knap of a hill or the woods. Our livestock are much more comfortable in cold weather than they are in hot weather.

The thermoneutral zone for livestock is a relatively narrow environmental temperature range in which heat production offsets heat loss completely, without activation of any conservation or removal mechanisms.

These thermoneutral zones for some of our common livestock are different than what we might expect.

For instance, for cattle, this zone is from -4 to 77 degrees, for unshorn sheep from 23 to 77 degrees and for horses from 14 to 77 degrees.

As you see, just because you are cold doesn't mean your stock is. Does this mean if the temperature goes above or below these zones the animal will perish? Of course not.

What it means is when the temperature dips below these "comfort" zones, animals will need extra energy in the form of added calories to keep warm.

And when the temperature rises above these zones, animals will need to cool themselves. They will pant or lie around to avoid expending extra energy.

So what are the important things to remember during this winter season?

For yourself, dress warmly in layers. You can always remove a layer if you get too warm and add it back if you get cool again. Remember, just because you are cold does not mean your livestock are.

For your livestock, if you use barns, do not shut them up tight.

Air flow is very important for the health of your animals. Draft is your enemy, not cold. Cold becomes your nemesis when it comes to keeping your stock water from becoming ice.

Regardless of the temperature, clean, fresh water is still an essential nutrient. While water consumption goes down in the colder weather, it does not disappear.

And while ice is not water, but a state of water, snow can be a water supplement.

Most livestock will eat snow in the course of grazing during the winter months.

Yes, I said grazing. Livestock can and do graze in the winter if forage supply is adequate.

They will usually graze through snow until it reaches a depth where their eyes are covered. So snow depth varies for each species and each age group.

Ice or ice crust on snow are a deterrent for grazing.

Wind breaks and proper nutrition are the most important ingredients to success for livestock during the winter. If you see your stock grazing, frolicking or chewing their cud, then they are doing well.

Remember, though, when things change, such as calving, foaling or lambing, nutrition requirements increase. So make the needed adjustments.

These times of birthing are also times when shelter is used. Dry and draft-free are the keys, not necessarily warmth.

If you smell ammonia, then your barn does not have adequate air flow and your bedding also might be too wet.

At this point, add or change your bedding, and open a door or window on the south or east side of the barn.

At any rate, enjoy this season; livestock on a canvas of snow can be extremely beautiful.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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