It isn’t unusual to begin preparation for cold winter weather at the end of October in the Ozarks where I live with my growing herd of dairy goats. The weather is generally warm and sunny during the day and cool at night. The first frost occurs at the end of October, signs of impending cold weather that usually lasts from mid November through the last frost in February or March.
Preparing for winter isn’t generally something that can be done at the last minute. Preparation of barns, grounds, and goat feed supplies should be in place prior to the time of expected cold weather.
Preparing the barn or shelter
Goats are rather hardy animals, however they are susceptible to pneumonia, a possible result of being subjected to damp, drafty conditions. Dairy goats can handle the cold temperatures if they have a shelter to get out of the wind and have a good undercoat of hair to protect them from frigid temperatures.
The ideal shelter for dairy goats should have a door or enclosure to block wind and precipitation from blowing in on the animals. Goats thrive much better in the cold if they can avoid being wet.
Heating lamps may be used for younger animals, but most healthy, adult goats are better off self-regulating their own body temperatures and if need be, cozying up with their herd mates for added warmth. Extreme caution for placement must be used if heat lamps are to be considered as a heat source for young or infirm animals. Many barn fires have been started by a heat lamp in close contact with bedding or other flammable substances. The dryness of typical barn bedding in close proximity to a heat source, like a heat lamp, will cause a fire rather quickly.
Goats prefer to sleep and/or relax up off the ground. Wooden pallets are great for this purpose because they allow the goat to get off the ground, and bedding can be placed on top of the slats for added insulation. Pallets are also easily moved for cleaning purposes.
Bedding should be fluffed and rotated as needed. In the colder temperatures it may not be as practical to fork the bedding out, or get a tractor up to the entrance. It is important to make sure the bedding is dry and selection of bedding material that will drain well and “fluff up” is a plus.
My own experience last year taught me to look for alternative bedding rather than hay or straw. My barn, when constructed, had eight stalls. Over time, as the hay and straw packed down, it became difficult for the stall doors to open and shut. The cold temperatures and snow made it impossible to bring the tractor in to remove it. This year, I hope to try using shavings with benches above the stall floor as a more efficient bedding option.
Most dairy goats, when healthy, will grow a nice thick coat of hair in the fall. When cold weather is around the corner, a white fuzzy layer of hair (called the undercoat) is noticeable. This undercoat is what keeps the goat warm. Some types and/or bloodlines of dairy goats do not develop this undercoat. These goats are candidates for a nice, well-fitted goat coat.
Goat coats can be made from fleece or other warm material that fastens around the goat with Velcro or some sort of snap. There are companies that sell pre-made goat coats in different materials, sizes, and colors, or patterns are available for those who want to make their own.
I have a Nubian doe that does not produce an undercoat. I noticed that she had trouble staying warm, and when the temperatures would drop she would shiver. I purchased a goat coat from an online auction site that was actually a large dog goat. The coat was made with double fleece. The coat slips over the head, and has a belly band that fastens on the other side with Velcro. The coat was big enough that she could wear it two seasons, and if it became soiled I could easily wash and dry it. I could tell she really felt better during the cold spells with her warm goat coat on.
Goats generally are able to keep warm and maintain body temperature if they are able to cuddle up together, and are out of the draft. However, sometimes kids that are born in the winter need special care so that they do not freeze. Kids have a harder time maintaining their own body temperature. Some department or discount stores carry knit dog sweaters, usually around Christmas time. These sweaters come in a large array of sizes. The average price is $3.95. This product is what I use for my goat kids. I purchase 10-15 of these sweaters each year. They are designed in such a way that they will slip over the goat kid’s head, front legs fit thru the leg holes. The sweater covers the back to the tail as well as chest. The belly portion is usually tapered to allow a more comfortable fit for bucklings. The sweaters are machine washable and last for more than one season.
Runs or play yards
Even if the weather is cold, goats will need to have ample time to run and jump around. Exercise will help keep energy levels high, lungs clear, and appetites hearty. As long as there isn’t a lot of wind or heavy precipitation, dairy goats are better off being outside playing during the day. Goats prefer being able to move around and stretch their legs.
Moderate snow on the ground should not prevent the goats from having some exercise time outdoors. Keep in mind that the snow and ice can get wedged between their hooves, so take care to make sure their feet are properly trimmed and the ice is removed as often as possible.
Feeding and minerals
During the coldest months, it may be necessary to feed a supplemental grain ration or free choice hay to the goats because there won’t be as much natural forage. When the first snow falls, there will be even less for the animals to eat without supplementation.
Eating is one important way that animals maintain body temperature. Keeping good clean hay in front of dairy goats at all time will keep their rumens active and energy level high. If they appear to lose weight during the colder months, increase the feed ration accordingly.
Round bales are great for paddocks or barnyards. Goats can feed continually off of the round bales, and several goats can eat off one bale for a month at a time. It is important to make sure the bale is fenced off with wire panels or is placed in such a way that the goats cannot climb on the bale and ruin the feed matter with urine or feces.
Free choice minerals and salt/mineral blocks should be available for consumption at all times. Generally, goats will only eat the minerals when their body needs them.
Water is as important for animals to consume as it is for humans. Without water, animals can dehydrate, and become sick. In the cold, livestock have a tendency not to drink as much because of the temperature.
Livestock supply companies sell electric tank warmers which work great for outdoor troughs that have a tendency to ice over. The tank warmers will maintain an above-freezing temperature. When purchasing a tank warmer, look at where the electrical cords join the heater itself. Some cheaper model tank warmers get shorts in them, and can give a shock to the animal as they attempt to drink.
Another investment is bucket warmers that plug in. There are several different sizes to choose from, and are much handier to empty and refill.
Last winter, the temperature at my farm dropped below zero several nights in a row. There was a concern that the goats were not drinking enough. The buckets would be filled morning, noon, and night, yet ice would form and the goats would stick their feet in the buckets to crack the ice. I went to the store and bought gallon jugs of orange flavored Gatorade. Gatorade has electrolytes in it, and is used by athletes to keep their hydration up during sporting events. I brought jugs of really hot water out to the barn, and poured the hot water into half filled buckets of cold water. This brought the temperature of the water up to about room temperature. I then added a cup or two of orange Gatorade to the mixture. I would offer each goat a bucket with this mixture, which they gratefully accepted. By doing this, I could ensure that each goat had plenty of fluids.
Another trick I used to ensure each goat was drinking enough fluids, was to purchase bags of oranges from the grocery store. I cut the oranges into quarters and then in half. This made it easier for the goats to eat. Each goat would eat three to four pieces. They enjoyed this special treat and I enjoyed knowing they were getting an extra vitamin C boost as well as additional fiber and fluid.
It is a good idea to worm prior to winter. Goats that are housed in a more confined or enclosed shelter have a greater chance of developing a worm related illness. Whatever the wormer preference, it is a good idea to follow up with a dose of a probiotic to restabilize the rumen. It is also a good idea to worm again 10 days after the initial dose to stop other worm eggs and larvae in their additional stages of development.
Storing medications and supplies
When cold weather comes, or prior to it, it is a good idea to take a look at the expiration dates and temperature guidelines for medications and other supplies stored in the barn. Many antibiotics require them to be stored at room temperature or slightly below. The effectiveness of the medication will be reduced if the recommended temperatures are exceeded.
|Supplies and equipment|
for winter weather
Tank heaters, and bucket warmers:
Goat coats and sweaters:
Dairy goats that are outside in cold temperatures run a risk of frostbite. Udders that have been clipped are unprotected and can suffer damage with over exposure in freezing temperatures. There are various udder balms on the market that prevent chapping, and wind chill protection. Bag Balm is also a good remedy for protection against frostbite.
Nubian goats are also more likely to have frostbite due to their long pendulous ears. Udder balm can be lightly coated onto the underside of the ear for protection. Another suggestion is using a light coating of Vaseline. Vaseline will not freeze because it is a petroleum product. The downside to using Vaseline is that dirt and grit will stick to it.
There are many little things to do to make the dairy goat’s life easier and more enjoyable, despite cold temperatures. The most important being to prevent drafts and moisture in sleeping quarters. A little preparation can go a long way towards making winter more enjoyable for both goat and owner. I have listed a few resources I have used for getting needed winter supplies (page 38). This is not a complete list, rather just a place to help others get started in looking for necessary cold weather items.