Winter’s early snow accumulation and long spells of extreme cold and wind chills certainly does test the resolve of many a goat keeper in the North.
New England winters prove to be a testament to the hardiness of our barnyard friends too.
We raise Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats near Cape Neddick in southern Maine and would like to share with you our list of things that we feel are necessary for us to do as good goat keepers in order to make our animals as comfy as possible through a long New England winter.
A good supply of hot water: Our goats prefer to drink water so hot that you would think their little tongues would be scorched but it is important to remember that a goat’s normal body temperature is hotter than a human’s. Even goats that have water bucket warmers will appreciate their morning and evening dose of hot water. This is especially important to those of you who keep bucks or wethers. Bucks and wethers can be prone to urinary calculi. Keeping your bucks and wethers supplied with hot water will ensure that they drink a lot of water; therefore they will have less of a chance of building up crystals in their urine.
A constant supply of hay: Hay should always be considered the goat’s "staple" and any grain should be considered a supplement to their hay. You can expect to be filling hay feeders more often during colder weather so that your goats can keep their rumens active and healthy which will help them to produce body heat.
Extra grain: I like to keep my goats looking and acting healthy on as little grain as possible but when we get into the "real" winter weather (usually the time between Thanksgiving and Easter) I find that I need to increase the amounts of my goat’s grain ration by as much as three times what I would be feeding otherwise. It is important for you buck and wether owners to remember that it is crucial to urinary tract health to feed either a grain that contains ammonium chloride or buy ammonium chloride separately and sprinkle it over the grain or mix it in the water.
Shelter that is free from wind: This is a very important part of keeping your goats healthy in the winter. They really are hardy creatures and can stand amazingly cold temperatures as long as they do not have to survive the winds too. In making a shelter free from wind don’t go overboard by making the shelter too insulated or airtight as it is just important that the shelter be ventilated. If a building is too airtight it soon becomes an unhealthy situation due to ammonia from urine.
Dry place to bed down: Be sure to keep your goats’ sleeping quarters supplied with clean fresh dry bedding. Wood shavings or straw work well at absorbing urine. If you’re building has wooden floors you should try to clean the bedding out every week rather than letting it build-up (which would only be appropriate in a dirt floored building). If your building does have dirt or concrete floors you should provide your goats with sleeping shelves which can be something as simple as an old wooden wire cable spool. We also get free wooden shipping pallets and fill in the space between the boards with more boards. These act as little wooden stages that the goats can use to get off the damp floors. They are easy to move around and clean too. If you are wondering about when is the right time to clean out soiled bedding just scooch down (in order to be at the same level as your goat’s nose) and take a deep breath. If it smells bad or is painful to your lungs then you know that it will be just as offensive to your goat’s lungs.
Keep up with parasite control: This one is very important! A goat that is carrying a large load of internal parasites is easily overcome by the cold because it will be immune suppressed and most likely underweight from poor nutrient absorption. When in doubt have your vet test a fecal sample (an easy and inexpensive thing to do to ensure the health of your goats). Don’t forget that your goats could easily be carrying external parasites too (certain types of mites are not species specific so your goats may get them from any other animal that passes through their living space). There are some external pour-on wormers that work fairly well at controlling external parasites. Just remember that a whole herd can be carrying parasites, internal or external and maybe only a handful would be showing symptoms. You still must treat the whole herd and not just the animals showing symptoms or you are wasting time and money.
Maintain good hoof care: A good hoof care routine is always important but even more so in cold weather. If the goat’s hooves are not kept properly trimmed, debris can collect and freeze not only in each hoof clove but also between the cloves of each hoof. I tell new goat owners that they can get away with hoof trimming approximately every six weeks but if they want to feel really good about the hoof care they are giving their goats that they will want to trim once a month. During the winter months you should definitely trim every month. I write everything that is done maintenance-wise down in a notebook that I keep specifically for my goats but if you are the type that just wants to go pick up a hoof to see if it is time for a hoof trim, always remember to check the back hooves and not the front. Goats tend to paw at things and will keep their front hooves more worn down than their back hooves.
A place in the sun: All goats are sun worshippers. If they have a spot up against the wall of a building that has southern exposure, where they can retire to ruminate after filling their bellies with hay, they will be very happy on sunny days.
Provide an exercise area: Once the snow starts piling up, it can limit your goat’s mobility. It is sometimes difficult for us to keep up with the snow removal of just our long driveway! When you add up all the paths to goat pens that need shoveling and gates that need to be kept clear of snow, some winters, we have a full time job moving snow. It would be easy to "cut corners" in order to save our backs, but it is so important to remember to clear a large enough area in your goat’s pen so that they can move around and get some exercise. If you don’t clear an area free of snow in their pens, your goats will not voluntarily wander out in the snow. Therefore they will not be getting an acceptable amount of exercise. This is especially important to those pregnant does.
Free choice "goat specific" loose minerals and sodium bicarbonate: This is another of those things that you should be doing year round for your goats. It is even more important in the cold weather months, when they don’t have access to fresh browse and may not be getting all the vitamins and minerals that they need from just their hay and grain.
Set aside time to goat gaze: This is the last on my list but it may very well be the most important part of being a good goat caretaker. This is the part of goat owning that I enjoy most. On even the coldest or stormiest day you will find me out with my goats (cup of coffee in hand) just watching and admiring their beauty and oftentimes getting some good laughs too. Doesn’t sound hard does it? Though sometimes there are so many things on our "to do" lists that we need to remind ourselves to make this "special time" a priority for the health of both us and our goats. By watching my goats each day, I learn what the normal behavior of each personality in my herd is. This way when someone is even slightly "off" I am able to pick up on it before it becomes a big problem. So, don’t forget to goat gaze!