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Keeping Goats (and other Animals) Warm in Winter

Maine winters are interesting. Since the start of December we've had 50 degree, sunshiny days, days where it was -10 degrees with a windchill taking it down to -30, days of freezing raining and feet of snow, and a few "normal" 10-20 degree, overcast days. Keeping the animals comfortable can be a challenge, but with the right set up in your barn or shelter they won't mind the chilly weather.

Having plenty of food is vital to surviving the winter. It's important for people, chickens, geese, and all animals, but it is especially important for goats. Goats have a rumen, which means that they eat quickly but then basically re-digest their food, breaking down the raw grass and hay via fermentation in their stomaches. This breaking down process also releases gasses, which is why goats chew their cuds and it is also a key part of them staying warm. Goats will appreciate any food or treats on a cold day, but a steady supply of second-cut hay is what really keeps their rumens working.

While it can be tempting to blanket your beasts, it will not help to keep them warm. Regularly putting a heavy winter coat on a goat will prevent their bodies from naturally growing a thick winter layer of fur. The natural fur winter coat that goats grow is as warm or warmer than any blanket you can put on them, so it is good to expose them to the cold weather as it approaches and allow their fur to do its thing. The exception to this rule, of course, is if you have very young goats or your goats are kidding in early spring, when it is a good idea to provide the little ones with extra warmth.

Water is the key to life, and even more so in the cold winter months. Not only should you always make sure that your animals have unfrozen water to drink at all times, you can offer them warm water as an extra treat on cold days. A little bit of warm water will get their blood flowing on a chilly morning. You can use heated water bowls so you don't have to worry about breaking ice for your animals as much, but don't use a heated bowls as an excuse to not pay attention to the condition of your animal's water. You can also feed warm oatmeal or treats served in warm water on very cold days, but even simple, plain warm water does wonders for getting the circulation going.

Proper housing is always important. A barn or shelter needs good ventilation, often in the form of a cupola or other opening around the roof, but its walls need to be solid and insulated if possible. Plenty of deep, clean bedding and especially bedding piled up around the edges of the stall to keep any possible wind out, is very helpful. Even though it's cold, regularly cleaning your animal's stalls is very important to their daily health.

I have also read that for goats, it is helpful to keep their sleeping area raised up off the ground. If your goats have a stall within a barn, as ours do, this is probably less critical, but if they have a small outdoor shelter be sure to offer them a resting platform that is not directly against the cold, frozen earth.

It's also helpful to have a group of goats. Our three snuggle together and keep each other warm, and if we had more they would be even more effective at keeping each other's body heat up. Chickens similarly crowd together, while our geese cannot be convinced to snuggle with each other. Fortunately, being covered in down counts for a lot when it comes to keeping the geese warm.

Keeping animals in winter takes a little more time and attention during the summer months. I like to think of this extra time cracking ice and bringing special treats as bonding opportunities not as easily available during the hurried summertime, and I treasure every moment in the barn.


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