Wintering Livestock

Wintering Livestock

by Robert Kaldenbach

Robert Kaldenbach is the esteemed former publisher/editor of the Massachusetts and New England Farm Bulletins. This essay was combined from two issues of the Massachusetts Farm Bulletin, Issue 91, 1979, and Issue 116, 1980, reprinted gratefully with permission.

Warm barns make for cheery farmers but they are not so good for the animals. Furry farm creatures, especially ruminants, are suited by their natures for temperatures far lower than man finds comfortable.


Ruminants ingest vast stores of roughage –- hay and silage -– which generate for them body heat that they must rid themselves of either through the skin or by exhaling from their lungs. When the temperature is in the range of 30-60°F, cattle are in heat balance: they need no additional heat nor are they having trouble getting rid of body heat. They must feel about as we do in the 70°F range. At sub-freezing temperatures cattle begin to increase their feed intake to fuel more body heat energy, but that does not mean they are discomforted. As has been observed widely, farm animals, given the choice, will often spend their time out of doors even at very low temperatures in winter. Animal shelters need only prevent the occupants from being exposed to draft and humidity, for it is these and not the cold, that lead to winter diseases in bird and beast.

Readying the small barn for winter is a job consisting of one part common sense and the other of self-restraint. The first part is simply doing unto your animals’ home as you would (and hopefully did) unto your own. Broken windows shall be replaced, open seams caulked, door latches tightened and the other obvious preparations for winter. Animal feed and bedding should be under cover, and if you are going to need hay in March or May next, buy it now and get it inside. That advice does not hold for bagged feed -– do not fill up the barn with grain, buy it when you need it.

Now, to the second part of winter barnsmanship –- the self-restraint. Hold your natural tendency to want to warm up the barn. Large animals, particularly ruminants, thrive at ambient temperatures that range from down close to freezing to up close to 60°F. The 70-80°F degrees of summer that humans love is an excess to fur-bearers. So while you should, and must, tighten up the barn against drafts and rain leaks, leave the temperature alone.


Bedding for your animal deserves a paragraph or two. Bedding is important for a couple of reasons: it can contribute to, or deduct from the animal’s health; it is a vital ingredient in good manure; and finally, it can be either pleasant or obnoxious to the farmer who must handle it.

The perfect animal bedding material will be cheap, absorbent, not dusty, able to hold ammonia and potash, and resistant to bacterial growth. Such a bedding does not exist. Straw is cheap, but so high in cellulose that it ferments easily, causing a rise in temperature which drives off nitrogen or converts it to forms less available to plants. Absorbency can be improved by chopping the straw but then it gets too dusty. Chopped corn stalks are about the same as straw but do contain a bit more nutrients. Wood chips are not absorbent and have no nutrients. Sphagnum peat moss, the best of bedding, is often too dusty for poultry houses and is very expensive.

You must decide to either deep-litter bed your animals, or to change their linen more often. Allowing waste hay to build up underfoot in the stall is certainly time-honored and is the easiest for you to manage, since you only clean the stall once, in the spring. This method produces some nicely fermented bedding for your garden next spring, but it also holds some health hazard, especially if practiced in a badly ventilated barn. Evaporation from the deep litter renders the air too humid for the animal’s health. And breeding in the soaked bedding are the carriers of such diseases as pneumonia, coccidiosis, and scours. All can be fatal. While almost all farm animals can endure very low temperatures, none but rabbits can stay well in humid or drafty homes. The well-tempered barn is cool-to-cold, free of drafts, and dry. Therefore, if you can manage the effort, it will be well to consider a lighter bed under your animals, removing the layer as it becomes soaked, taking it outside and piling it, under cover of plastic or dirt. This way you preserve some of the nutrients in the manure-bedding, free the barn of lethal humidity and an odor that gets uglier as winter deepens.

Other ways to control humidity include feeding the animals out of doors whenever possible. By reducing the manure in the bedded areas of the shelter you not only keep down humidity, you also get a cleaner and healthier stall. And being out of doors, under all but the most extreme conditions, is no punishment for the animals. Sheep are renowned for their ability to withstand cold — they will sleep in snow banked over them. Beef cattle too are capable of wintering without shelter other than some trees or a windbreak. Dairy cattle are not so hardy.

(Editor’s note: Horses, those accustomed to being out in the weather, are extremely hardy. This hardiness depends on a natural long hair coat and a full, seasonal acclimation. The pampered horse, with short hair coat and restricted access to out of doors, initially will do poorly in the open. The general rules of winter livestock care will apply to horses with one important caveat: care must be taken that horses aren’t allowed to eat moldy bedding which can be lethal. And dust is particularly harmful as well. If the horse is to be kept in doors for long periods of time, concern should be taken that the flooring does not cause or aggravate hoof problems. Concrete under hoof will cause problems.)


Drafty air is a killer too. To prevent drafts and yet let air circulate, barns are designed with roof ventilators to let the humid air out, and indirect air inlets down low to let the cold dry air in without causing a draft. You can fit your smaller animal shelters similarly by opening a board up high near the roof, maybe an inch in width, a foot or two in length. This takes care of the outgoing air. For incoming ventilation of a tight building, leave a window open, covered by a heavy curtain hung from above to slow down the force of a wind.


Rules of the barn apply here too –- cold and dry is good, wet and drafty is disease and death. Ducks and geese ask no more than a covered place to sleep, spending their days out of doors, damn the cold. Laying hens tend to lay less at sub-freezing temperatures, but like their mammalian sisters and brothers in the barn, are life-threatened by humidity, not cold. If hens are closely housed (crowded) make sure that non-drafty ventilation is built in. The easiest way is to jab a few holes in the southern wall of the henhouse, up high. This will permit the warm, wet air to escape. And if the house is well-caulked and tight as it should be, you may need a couple of holes down low, in that same southern wall, to let in some cold dry air for ventilation. Note that air should enter and leave from the same wall because cross ventilation, nice in summer, is called a draft in winter. Drafts kill poultry.

Chickens sweat a lot. They, more so than even the furry ruminant, throw off a lot of moisture through their skin and that moisture must escape. Bedding should be changed frequently in the henhouse. And while crowding birds close together in a chicken house may conserve some feed, the risk of disease (and the certainty of stress) makes crowding not smart. Little white Leghorns need 1.5 to 2 square feet of living space inside, big brown Reds need 2 to 2.5 square feet each.


In winter, feed rations may need an upward boost to provide the extra heat generation the body calls for. And water supplies must be closely attended to, for two reasons. First, dehydration is more likely in winter. Cold air will not hold as much moisture as warm air so ambient humidity is lowered as the thermometer descends. Drier air dries the animals. Second, barn waterers that freeze effectively cut off the animals water supply –- few can lick enough ice to meet their needs. Waterers must be checked several times a day and re-filled or cleared of ice.


Not all animals thrive on this cold-but-dry regime. Exceptions are pigs, rabbits and baby chicks. Adult pigs like it at 60°F and piglets need 80°F. These temperatures are so high that keeping pigs in the same barn with cows, sheep or goats is probably to be unkind to one or the other, their individual needs being so at odds. Rabbits are even more fragile: they like it both warm and moist. Insulating their pens may be enough, when combined with the heat from their droppings beneath the pen. Rabbits should not be bred in winter because baby rabbits are highly vulnerable to cold.

Pigs and chicks and bunnies aside, the healthiest farm animal shelter is the one cold and dry and free of draft. If that bothers the shivering human, try to remember how uncomfortable your animals were last summer when you were reveling, barefoot and suntanned. To each its own.