Welcome to the Homesteading in the Winter blog series. A group of homesteading bloggers is taking time each week to write about different issues associated with the needs and unique challenges of living on a homestead (big or small, urban or rural) during the winter. The perspectives of each blogger are unique since we all live in different climates and farm different products. As the only Floridian in this series, I suspect my ideas of winter prep vary greatly from many of my other homesteading peers. Today’s topic is “Cold Weather Animal Care.” The participating blogs for this week include: The Homesteading Hippy | Timber Creek Farm | House Barn Farm | Whistle Pig Hollow | The Not-So-Modern Housewife | Fresh Eggs Daily | Homegrown on the Hill | Schneider Peeps | Blue Yurt Farms | Five Little Homesteaders | The Browning Homestead at Red Fox Farm
After reading my post, please take a few minutes to visit these other blogs and learn about what raising animals in winter looks like where they live. Winter is right around the corner and now is the best time to prepare for the cold weather ahead. Even though Florida’s winters seem laughable to our neighbors to the north, there are still certain precautions that need to be taken to ensure our animals stay happy, safe and healthy. Fall and winter are great times to clear paddocks and fence lines of weeds and do routine fence maintenance. We have high tensile fencing, so the wires shrink as the weather gets cold. Now is the time to relieve tension on the wires to prevent them from snapping. November is also an excellent time to overseed pastures with winter rye to keep pastures green and prevent soil erosion.
Now is also the time to clean out barns and chicken coops. In Florida, we don’t have to worry about the ground freezing, but we do have to worry about insects and parasites that don’t die because we don’t get a hard freeze. Winter is also a time when the animals are spending more time in their pens because of the decreased daylight. Being cooped up not only means more opportunity for them to get the pens dirty, but also an increased risk of eye and respiratory infections because of dirty, dusty pens. We see most of our chicken illnesses in the winter. Cleaning out pens helps to keep all of these issues to a minimum. This is also the time of year to consider thinning out flocks and herds. Extra animals means more time and energy needed to keep up with winter chores, during a time when there is even less daylight in which to get things done. Fewer animals makes your job as a homesteader much easier. Plus, feed and hay get expensive in the winter. In Florida, hay can become nearly impossible to find by the time spring rolls around. If you can find it, you can expect to pay handsomely for it. Hay storage isn’t generally practical in Florida either. While up north hay is typically bought in bulk in the summer and stored throughout the year, hay in Florida will mold within a matter of days or weeks in the summer (depending on how it’s stored). The humidity is much lower in the winter, allowing for more hay storage, but many small farms don’t have the facilities to store it. We still don’t have a barn here, so we buy our hay two weeks at a time. It helps to have the names and numbers on hand for multiple hay growers, so you can call around when hay supplies start to get low.
I’ve been going through the process the last couple weeks of deciding which chickens to keep, which to sell, and which to butcher. We’ve already put seven roosters in the freezer and I have at least six more who will go in when they’re big enough. I also have at least four ducks who need to be butchered. We’ve butchered two of our pigs and we have a third who will be butchered in another month. I have one horse who needs to be sold, but she still has more training that needs to be done before she’s ready. Ideally, she’ll be sold before hay supplies get low this spring.
As for the cold temperatures (yes, even central Florida gets temperatures into the teens), most of the animals can cope without any outside assistance. Our main focus is on the young, old and infirm, who can’t always regulate their body temperatures on their own. Our chicks and ducklings get a heat lamp. They’re inside right now, but will probably move to the outside brooder this weekend. It is closed in on three sides with mesh wire on the fourth side for light and air circulation. We’ll put a heat lamp in it to keep them warm until they’re fully feathered (about a month from now). We will also put a heat lamp in the coops when the temperatures drop below freezing, but usually only overnight. When we’ve had piglets, we’d give them a bed of hay and a heat lamp. We’ll have to do the same thing if this goat ever decides to get pregnant and have babies. (I’m getting really frustrated with the lack of goat milk.)
The best thing you can do for grazing animals in cold weather is to increase their hay and pasture (if you have it). The process of breaking down the plant materials creates precious body heat for them. If you offer free choice hay to your animals, you will probably notice them going through the hay much faster. This week, my horses have finished their round bale a full day earlier than usual because of the current drop in temperatures. Make sure you’re also increasing their water intake and loose minerals (to encourage water consumption). As the temperatures drop, animals (like humans) forget to drink enough water. Increased hay consumption and decreased water consumption is a recipe for constipation and impaction. I’ve been letting my goats out for more grazing time lately because they’re not only staying warm, but they love to eat all of the dead, dry leaves and weeds. One of my winter projects is to build them a stall or shed. They have a dog house for shelter, but they can barely squeeze the two of them in there. And heaven forbid Nessie decides to kid on a cold, windy night (which I’m sure she will). Currently, our only option is to string up a bunch of tarps. Hopefully she’ll give me some warning before she actually has babies. Cold weather is really hard on baby animals. If I’m not prepared, I’m going to end up with goats living in my kitchen.
One way to keep horses warm is with the use of blankets. Opinions vary widely on the decision of if or when to blanket, especially here in Florida. I still blanket, especially if the temperatures are going to drop below freezing. Horses will generally grow a thick winter coat and have a good natural ability to regulate their body temperatures; however, my 28 year old mare has trouble regulating. She doesn’t sweat in the summer and she gets cold easily in the winter. She also has bad teeth, so she can’t chew and digest hay properly to help warm her body. She gets blanketed with the thickest blanket I own as soon as I feel like it’s too cold outside (about 50 degrees). If it’s cold and windy, I will blanket all of the horses since they don’t have a shelter to go to get out of the wind. I also try to prevent them from growing overly thick coats. In Florida, we can have freezing temperatures overnight, but highs in the 70s-80s during the day. With heavy winter coats, these extreme temperature fluctuations will cause them to colic. In these types of cases, I will blanket overnight, but remove the blankets after the sun has come up. This way, their bodies don’t experience as much of a swing in temperatures. When working horses, it’s important to cool them down completely in the winter time. If it’s a warm, sunny afternoon, I can still hose them off to help cool them down, provided they have enough time to dry off before the sun goes down. But if I’m riding late in the day, I don’t hose them off because they won’t have a chance to dry completely before it gets cold. In these cases, I will ride them at a walk until they no longer feel warm. Then, when I untack, I leave them tied until their sweat has dried. I’ve found that brushing the hair backwards helps it to dry faster. Caring for animals in the winter can be a lot of work, but the drop in temperatures can also mean a more enjoyable experience (especially in Florida). It’s important to do any necessary farm maintenance before the temperatures get too cold. Planning and preparedness are the best solutions for a trouble free season. This also means keeping coops and runs clean to prevent illness. Plan ahead and have supplies on hand to keep your animals warm when temperatures get too low. Before you know it, it will be spring and you’ll have a barnyard full of baby animals again.