Practical Advice on How to keep Your Goats Warm and Happy

Reader Contribution by Julia Shewchuck
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We’ve lived in Florida many, many years. Half of those years we lived in South Florida where the idea of a hard freeze is 50 degrees at night, and half of those years in North Florida where the temperatures can and will dip into the low 20’s at night. Thankfully these low temperatures usually only last one or two nights, but sometimes they can stick around for up to a week. Now, you Northerners can stop laughing, but the fact is, that while your animals and your wardrobe are well prepared for those below freezing temperatures, our animals and livestock and our wardrobe are not. Our livestock doesn’t grow the protective winter coats, our barns and shelters are constructed for maximum ventilation and shade rather than warmth and our closets typically don’t include any winter coats. Two more challenges we face are the rather large temperature fluctuations from freezing at night to mid-sixties during the day, and the typically early in the year kidding season from December/January through April before the weather gets too hot and the bugs become a pest of moms and babies.

What we have found though, it doesn’t take a lot of money to make sure that your southern livestock of all ages weathers a cold spell well, just some preparation and extra attention for “freeze prep”.

1. Give your goats and other livestock plenty of extra hay to munch on when it gets cold. Heat is produced through the digestion of the hay and can be useful in helping your livestock maintain body temperature in colder temperatures. And depending on availability, extra rations of a high protein forage such as alfalfa or perennial peanut can help the internal engine going.

2.  Provide shelter for your animals to be able to move out of the wind, and to stay dry on drizzly, rainy days. A wet coat will lower body temperature and will make it harder to stay warm and healthy. Fresh air is good, but a shelter is needed, especially if there isn’t a natural shelter like a tree line. We put up a plastic lining around our kidding stalls. For several years we used 6 mil plastic sheeting which we stapled to the wood, but it had a couple of disadvantages. The goats liked to chew the plastic, it was not that resistant to strong wind and it wasn’t all that easy to put up. This year we switched to hard plastic panels often used for green houses or roofing. It turns out to be chew resistant, it is strong enough to withstand heavier storms and it is much faster to put up and take down; and it is more economical because it can be used year after year. The plastic is only on three sides, still keeping plenty of ventilation during the warmer days, but breaking the wind and rain. The temperature inside the pens is probably about 10 – 15 degrees warmer now.

3. Thick bedding will help your livestock keep dry and warm. The bedding insulates them from the ground and helps maintain body temperature especially when they can snuggle into the hay and with each other. Our livestock guardian dogs with their thick coats do not want to come inside the house even when offered. They are happy with the colder temperatures, jumping and playing, but they do snuggle and dig into the warm hay compost for shelter and added warmth. 

4. Give warm mash to your horses and goats to ensure there is enough liquid in their guts to avoid colic and impaction and increase fluid intake. We mix two cups of alfalfa cubes and two cups of beet pulp in hot water to make a delicious soup into which we mix the grain just before feeding. This helps with increasing their water consumption and we do this twice daily with the horses. Our goats don’t like mash, but we do give them warm water to drink during cold weather, sometimes plain or with added molasses. Also considering that milk is about 80% water and if your milkers don’t drink enough, their milk production will decrease. Warm water is extremely palatable for our goats and they will slurp down a small bucket in no time.

5. Blankets for older or thin horses (we blanket when the temperatures hover near 30) so they don’t have to expend energy trying to stay warm, the blanket is a big help. Southern horses don’t usually grow a really thick coat to protect them. Just make sure to take the blanket back off during the day when the temps climb again. We also put little sweaters on the baby goats for the same reason. Our rule of thumb: if we wear a hat and three layers including a thick jacket, blankets are in order for the horses and baby goats. Dog sweaters from big box stores work great or they can be sewn very easily from a felt fabric.

6. Hang up heat lamps to the ready in the kidding pens to keep newborn goats, lambs, and other baby critters warm. We use the heat lamps from Premier1, which have a protective plastic cover so that the heat lamp bulb doesn’t touch hay or animals and minimizes the danger of fires or burnt skin. Their only drawback is that they are very difficult to open for me to get the bulb in. Actually, impossible for me. I have to have someone do it for me.  

Other little farm tasks that we include in our “Freeze Prep” are:

bringing potted plants inside and covering other plants with plastic;
refreshing the automatic waterers in the morning with warmer water from the underground pipes;
keeping the pasture water lines on drip to avoid freezing;
covering well pump lines or other water lines with blankets or towels to avoid freezing to avoid bursting;
unhooking and draining hoses the night before to avoid freezing.

Even though we huff and puff through our few frosty mornings, we love the frost covered grass, the little crystals hanging from the fences and the idea of a crock pot meal in the evening. And of course, there is always a silver lining even with freezing weather in the South: it decimates the worms and coccidia which normally are a year round bane to our existence.  Mother Nature does know best.

Julia Shewchuk owns and operates Serenity Acres Farm on 80 acres in Florida. Serenity Acres runs on solar, is Animal Welfare Approved-certified, houses anywhere from four and eight volunteers, and is the home to a small herd of dairy goats, 11 Black Angus cattle, 75 laying hens, 3 horses, 2 cats, 4 house dogs, 7  livestock guardian dogs, and 1 duck. Read all of Julia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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