No, we’re not expecting white walkers, or even much snow for that matter, but our forecast calls for four consecutive days of temperatures remaining below freezing. For us, in Lowgap, North Carolina, when daytime averages are 45°F to 55°F this time of year, it means we have to make special preparations for our livestock.
Keeping animals watered takes a little extra work. Our free range ducks and turkeys are covered because we have a spring fed pond. Even when the pond freezes, there is always a stream of unfrozen water at the spring entrance and the pond drain. Our poultry like to be reminded of where their water sources are located. So, I take a shovel or digging bar and break up the ice cover right around those areas to make the water flow more obvious. This is easy to do since the water flow keeps thick ice from forming for at least a one foot radius around these points.
For our confined goats and chickens, shuttling buckets of hot water is my strategy. I keep a stack of plastic farm buckets in the house so they are warm when I fill them with hot water. Plastic is a better insulator than metal and starting with hot water extends the time before freezing occurs. I also place the buckets in a corner with good wind protection or positioned at the junction between two straw bales for extra insulation. This keeps water from freezing for about 6-8 hours with temperatures in the teens. With three water deliveries per day, the first before light and the last before total dark, my animals stay sufficiently hydrated. These visits also give me a chance to check in on the animals and make sure no one is showing signs of stress from the cold.
Avoid frozen plumbing. Making sure we have running water in our house is key to making this plan work. Our first year here, we had an 8°F night, and our well pump froze. That’s when we learned the importance of insulating all above ground pipes and keeping the cold water dripping in one indoor faucet all night. If possible, you can also set delayed runs on your dishwasher or washing machine to draw more water through overnight. Similar to our spring fed pond, as long as water is being continuously pulled through the pipes, they are less likely to freeze. We also disconnect any outdoor hoses from hose bibbs as a precaution.
Keeping animals comfortable in the cold is important for good health. Frankly, none of our full-grown livestock will die from the cold we have here, even if it drops to the single digits for a few days. But since we are trying to raise our animals without drugs, dewormers, supplements, etc., to keep them healthy, we need to keep them from becoming stressed. Our fully feathered poultry haven’t shown any signs of discomfort in the cold. In fact, the ducks seem to love it. But our Nigerian Dwarf goats shiver and “meatloaf” (sit on their hooves to keep them warm).
Straw bales are a cheap way to warm up unheated spaces. For the goats, I set out several straw bales around their shelter so they can sit on something other than the cold, wood floor. I also disperse thick layers of loose straw directly on the floor for goats who prefer to pile-up in a heap for warmth. I give them extra rations of grain, and a raise their percentage of alfalfa, because keeping warm burns more energy. I also add a splash of raw vinegar, drained from refrigerator pickles or the left over fluid from our fermented pickles, to their water for an immune system boost.
Goats have sensitive lungs and are susceptible to pneumonia. So, you can’t seal up their shelter against wind and cold. But, on particularly cold nights I do throw blankets over the welded wire gates in their barn to limit direct drafts and I cut down their space to half of their barn to raise the ambient air temperature using goat body mass. I also skip milking mama does who are still nursing kids so that the kids get extra rations of milk.
Newborn livestock need extra care. Any new borns get bottle fed and sleep in a bathtub in the house. We take the kids out for frequent visits with their mama, but as soon as they show signs of being cold, we take them back in. This might just a few minutes, or hours, depending on outside temperatures and kid activity levels. I tried cute “kid sweaters” last year because another blogger used them with success, but they were insufficient for temperatures below freezing. When kids get cold, they can’t nurse, and if they can’t nurse, they die. After a close call once, my philosophy now is “don’t risk it”. As much as I like to be a natural goat keeper, given the unnatural conditions we provide and the timed pregnancies we control, sometimes we have to intervene.
If you want to learn more about the wacky ways I keep goats, check out my ABCs of Homesteading: G is for Goats on the Mother Earth News Blog.
Luckily this kind of cold isn’t something we deal with often, but since none of us are accustomed to it, we do need give a little extra care to keep our livestock happy and healthy. As for me, I’ll be having goat’s milk hot cocoa and enjoying a good book to keep cozy in between making the rounds.