As I write this the outside temperature is -13 degrees, with a wind chill of -41 degrees. That’s just downright cold by anyone’s standards. News stations have been advising that people bring their pets indoors until this cold snap passes in a couple days, and that’s good advice. It is dangerous for animals that are not conditioned to the cold and that are not built to withstand this cold weather.
But what about farm animals? How do chickens, cows, goats, and other animals deal with such extreme temperatures? Clearly we’re not bringing any of these animals inside to weather the storm. As soft a heart as Mrs. Hoosier Heritage Farm has for God’s creatures, the chickens aren’t going to be roosting on the couch in the living room. So I thought I’d give a little run-down of how we prepare the animals for cold weather here on the farm, and give you an update on how they are doing on this frosty morning.
The cows are the easiest to manage during cold weather. They are built to take extreme temperatures in stride. If you keep a cow out of the wind and out of the mud, it can take just about anything that nature throws at it. Cold temperatures barely faze them. Our cows are luckier than many, since they have a place to go inside, thanks to my dad, who built our barn in 1958 (it is the barn that is pictured in our logo). It is a bank barn, meaning that it has two levels. We use the upper level for hay and machinery storage, and the lower level—kind of like a walk-out basement—for animals. The big door stays wide open all the time for ventilation; otherwise, they could actually get too warm in the barn.
Our pygmy goats also have a section of the barn. They are not nearly as tough as the cows are, but they still take cold weather well. They start putting on a fluffy coat in the fall, and by this time of the year, they are well-insulated little fuzz balls. They have another, smaller door to the outside, but when it is really cold we close that up. They don’t really want to go outside to romp in the snow anyway.
The remaining inhabitants of the lower level of the barn are the newest addition to Hoosier Heritage Farm. A couple weeks ago we acquired B.D. and Panda, two beautiful Great Pyrenees livestock guard dogs. They are wonderful and very useful dogs with an important job to do—I’ll write more about that in another post. They are perfectly adapted to cold weather. They have tremendously thick coats which insulate them well. As a matter of fact, they only stop panting when it gets down to about 15 degrees! Right now they are closed up with the goats, but they would be perfectly happy running around in our arctic tundra pasture, warding off any potential predators that may attack our farm animals.
We have two very tame barn cats who live in the upper level of the barn (B.D. and Panda are not big cat fans). They find little nooks and crannies in the stacks of hay and straw where they cuddle up on cold nights. They can go outside if they want to, but all they need is right there in the barn, including a ready supply of mice to chase.
The last group of animals are the layer hens. They require the most management during cold weather, but they too have adapted very well. They live in a mobile chicken house that, in the summer, has a mesh floor and large mesh windows that allow for plenty of air flow and good distribution of chicken droppings as we move the house around the pasture. In the winter, though, we cover the floor with plywood and make a deep bed of straw on it. The windows are closed up to keep the snow and biting wind out. And on very cold nights, like last night, we put a couple heat lamps in the house to give everyone an extra measure of warmth. When I went to check on them this morning, they were nice and cozy. In fact, the rooster was crowing like it was a sunny spring morning!
It is important that all the animals have access to fresh drinking water at all times, and weather like this helps one appreciate heated water supplies. The cows have a floating heater in their 100-gallon stock tank, the goats and dogs have a heated water bucket, the cats have a birdbath heater in their water dish, and the chickens have a heated drinker. Even on this most frigid of mornings, there was no ice in anyone’s drinking water!
Farm animals are not pets, but they do need to be taken care of properly. With the the right shelter (not too much and not too little), ready access to clean drinking water, and good feed, they adapt to cold weather just fine. Even so, weather like this makes those sunny green pastures of summer all the sweeter!