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Advice from a Farm Vet on Caring for Livestock Animals in Winter

Farm vet Dr. John Mettler, Jr., offers advice to readers about raising livestock and animals in winter weather. He discusses proper livestock shelters, necessary winter equipment and how to care for animals in the snow to maintain good livestock health through the colder months.

| December 1991/January 1992

  • horse in snow
    A horse reaches for a fresh bite of grass under a layer of winter snow.

  • horse in snow

People who raise livestock often have questions about how to best care for their beloved animals in winter months. When readers came to us with their questions about how to best maintain animal health through the harsh winter months, we went straight to an expert: Dr John Mettler Jr, D. V.M. He has practiced as a large-animal country vet for more than 40 years in rural New York State and is the author of two animal books, and an expert in horse health. The answers below will help you decide on the proper cattle supplies, horse supplies and other winter equipment that will help you provide for your animals all winter long.

Q: A few years ago, I started keeping beef cattle, a milk cow, a few hogs, sheep and two horses on a farm in Vermont. Neighbors tell us that recent winters have been mild for this part of New England and that we're due for more normal weather with deep snow and below-zero temperatures in the coming months. Will this cause health problems, such as respiratory disease, in our livestock?  

A: If you maintained good livestock health during these past few milder New England winters, you'll do just fine when you have your animals in the snow. Still, Mother Nature shouldn't be underestimated: handling horses in the snow, proper cow care in cold weather and the necessary winter equipment are all situations worth preparing for before winter comes full force. It's important to know how to prevent weather-related winter health problems before they occur.

The two most important factors in livestock health are the effects, both internally and externally, of air and water: Both should be fresh and pure, and too much or too little of either will cause problems. All livestock suffer from the cold if they are wet. Cattle and horses, if given access to three-sided, shed-type livestock shelters open to the east or south, will stand under it during a cold rain, but will often be found outside, bedded down or feeding, on a cold clear night or day. Even with their backs covered with snow, the dry air trapped in their longhair coat insulates them from the cold (like the unmelted snow on the roof of a well-insulated house, it is an indication that the cow or horse is warm inside).

A tight but well-ventilated old cow barn that will stay above freezing if it is full of cows would not be the best place for a lone dairy cow. Perhaps you could rearrange things and keep your sheep and/or horses with her. Keep in mind that your dairy cow will get along fine in a cold, open shed (as does a beef cow), but milking at below-freezing temperatures is not particularly comfortable for the human part of the operation.

Hogs are okay in cold weather, but should be bedded heavily enough in their hog house so that they have a warm place to lie. After a really heavy snowstorm, you'll want to shovel a path from the hog house to the feed trough so that your hogs won't become snowbound.

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Shelter should be provided all year round, farm animals, livestock being given a choice to take shelter. There are farmers who will provide clean, well aired and most importantly dry shelter, ground, for larger and smaller livestock, yet many other farmers do not. Livestock in the winter months can really endure the harshest of weather and dry ground is so important for any animal to rest their body and protect their self and their young. I have seen horrendous sights of livestock left to stand in terrible conditions, icey, wet and muddy ground and in freezing temperatures with no form of man made shelter. High winds in the winter can be exhausting for animal to stand in day and night with no form of shelter, they do not have to go through this as all farm animals deserve dry shelter. No animal has to be left in knee deep snow and no where to rest properly. Of course, many livestock can prefer to be outside yet it is fair to offer them that choice, and is very possible to do that.

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