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Cold Weather Care for Livestock

We’ve got some bitter cold in Maine this week, and it’s a good time to talk about what we do on the farm to keep all of our animals happy in severe weather.

This post is generally about livestock. I mention many times to research your particular animal's needs. I'll also reinforce that now. Some animals are built to thrive in cold -- LGDs, Highland Cows, etc. Some tolerate it -- goats, sheep, pigs. And some are more at risk like guinea fowl.

Animal care leading up to a cold snap is critical, and you should always be prepared for a worst case scenario. Any farm should have a 1st Aid Kit on hand with supplements, wraps, and medications specific for their type of livestock's needs. It is also important to establish a relationship with a veterinarian and know you can call on them in a serious situation. Healthy animals will be better able to handle the cold, so invest in proper nutrition and excellent animal care every day of the year -- obviously! Also, it's important to note that animals who do receive extra care like extra blanketing or coming in the home during cold snaps will not build up natural tolerances to cold. If you choose to pamper your pets, that's your choice, but keep in mind you'll have to maintain that level of care.

That said, most severe weather will pass without drama, and proper animal care during the fall and early winter helps to ensure everyone makes it through winter in prime health.

Dealing With a Cold Snap

While most Maine winters hover around 20F, we’ll usually have a couple of weeks in January or February that drop down to 0-10F. I’d call that a cold snap - it’s chillier than usual, but it is within the window of ‘normal’ for our climate and what our animals are used to.

In a cold snap, you want to make sure that every animal has a secure shelter. Some animals don’t need four walls and a close door, but all need at least a space with a roof to protect them from the elements. Most need a space with secure walls to stop the wind. Be aware of your particular animal’s needs (pigs, cows are more hardy than chickens or goats), provide them with enough shelter and before a cold snap, make sure everything in the shelter is secure, there are no cracks in the walls, the doors close properly, etc, and in most cases put down a layer of fresh bedding for extra warmth.

Apart from shelter, the most important things in a cold snap are good food and plenty of water. In a cold snap I continue providing grain or hay along my normal feeding routine, but bump up how much I’m feeding. For ruminants like goats, the process of digesting really helps keep them warm so they’ll get extra hay to keep their rumens going.

Severe Cold

Severe cold, to me, is when a cold snap lasts longer than a week without breaking, or when it drops below 0F, or cold snap weather is combined with other weather elements like strong winds or snowstorms.

Again, make sure buildings are secure, bedding is deep and fresh, feed extra and provide plenty of water. You may consider blanketing some animals you otherwise would not in this weather. In severe cold I always serve water hot from the kitchen sink, which can be very warming for the animals and also helps it stay unfrozen longer outside. You can offer additional food like hot mash, warmed vegetables, etc.

You can also consider additional vitamins and minerals — although things like this are most effective if they are part of a regular routine or you’ve been building them up prior to the severe cold. Apple cider vinegar, garlic, pumpkin seeds, and black oil sunflower seeds all have great immune benefits for most animals (chickens, goats — *be sure* to research this for your animal’s needs!) and can be incorporated into their diets to make them hardier against severe cold, or added to the diet if they seem to be struggling in harsh weather.

Wind Chills

One of the biggest threats to animals and people in severe cold is strong winds. Winds can drop the temperature by 20 or 30 degrees, and can cause frostbite sometimes within moments. If wind chills are severe during a cold snap in your area, most animals should be kept inside where they can stay out of the wind, or blanketed. Again — research your own species. Some livestock are hardy to strong winds, but most need at least a wind-break they can stand behind in strong weather.

Keep wind chills in mind for yourself as well! Remember they can make it feel much colder than the thermometer reads, and dress accordingly.

Ice versus Snow

In the winter we also have to contend with various forms of precipitation. Snow and ice are common in Maine. Deep snowfall amounts can be dangerous and problematic. Vehicles can become stuck and roads impassible, leaving you stranded. Doors may be hard or impossible to open, and pathways blocked. It’s important to keep up with heavy snowfall, going out throughout a storm to keep clearing paths and doorways, and when the storm is over do a major snow removal. Make paths, roadways, pastures, as clear as possible, because snowbanks will build up over the winter and everything will get smaller and smaller. And always be prepared for yourself and your animals before heavy snow — have enough essentials on hand to weather a few days without the roads being passable.

Here in Maine, ice is over more of a problem than snowfall amounts. Freezing rain can be just as dangerous for travel as heavy snow, so again, always be prepared to be unable to leave home. Without fail, invest in a pair of grippers for your boots so you can do chores without being afraid of falling over.

Ice might seem like a lesser threat than snow, after all you may only get 1/4” or 1/2” of ice compared to feet of snow. But now imagine going about daily tasks with everything covered in 1/2” of ice. Spigots freeze shut. Care doors can’t be opened. Animals cannot move safely around. Feed buckets freeze to the ground.

For minor icy inconveniences I carry a lighter all winter — hold it up to a spot of ice freezing a spigot shut, and problem solved. Many problems can also be solved by preventative measures — pick up feed buckets before weather arrives, don’t leave anything outside in weather that doesn’t have to be. A pry bar in incredibly useful for more serious frozen problems, and is another must for a farm prone to icy weather. Salt or sand pathways and steps, and use a layer of hay or straw in animal areas that become too slippery.

Good Weather Maintenance

For animals, humans, and equipment, good weather maintenance is critical to surviving the winter. In the fall make sure to do things like winterizing equipment and stabilizing fuel. Feed your animals a healthy diet, always, and always make sure they have the loose minerals, salt blocks, etc, that they need. Have plenty of buckets on hand in case a water bucket breaks in severe cold — and get rubber buckets that will not shatter like plastic. Have the right equipment, such as boot grippers and pry bars — if you can, buy any winter equipment in spring or summer at lower prices. Keep enough hay, feed, and medicines on hand that you don’t have to go out in a storm. Keep up with building maintenance.

If you are properly prepared, you can actually enjoy winter! It is a fun, different adventure that allows you to see the farm in a new light, blanketed by snow (or ice!).

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