No matter the location-be it polar regions, middle plains, or even coastlines-water and warmth are two of the most important management factors for goat owners to consider during the winter months of the year.
Nickel’s Dairy Goats got started in the northern United States, working out of a two-car garage in the suburbs. The challenges of -20°F were certainly different than what we face in our current mid-latitude location, but in some ways more easily tolerated. The cold was not as humid, nor were the fluctuations in temperature as drastic. In both places, water and warmth were key factors to maintaining optimum health of our does during the winter.
When the temperature dips below zero and the water freezes before chores are finished, a herdsman (and his or her goats) will find benefit from a heated tank that keeps water temperature above freezing. Although this water is not to be considered "warm," it contains some heat benefit as the doe’s system receives less shock and she is willing to drink more water on a trip to the water tank, in addition to being willing to drink more often.
Positioning the tank in an inside or out of the wind location benefits in two ways. It will cut the cost of electric to keep the tank from freezing. In addition, if it is handy and pleasant to make the trip to the tank, the does will be encouraged to go more often. We heat a 100-gallon tank for access by the milkers and also keep a clean bucket at hand to dip water for stock penned separately where a heated tank is not feasible.
Our favorite water tank for adult stock is a 100-gallon Rubber-Maid, which is available with an electric heater that is mounted on the bottom in the water. The cord leaves the unit at the lower back. In our barn the cord runs through a steel wool plug in the end of a PVC pipe and exits the pipe through a second plug of steel wool. The PVC pipe prevents goats or dogs from amusing themselves by chewing on the cord. The steel wool prevents rodent traffic in the PVC pipe.
For kids over 50 pounds we use a 50-gallon tank summer or winter. It is heated anytime the outside temperature drops below 40°F.
I would caution the use of individually heated buckets with portable bucket units for heated water. These pose a real danger of barn fire if the unit becomes dislodged or the bucket is drained. We never discard an old cooler, and hunt for them at garage sales to supplement our supply. When the drain is super-glued shut, it becomes a small insulated tank. Bucks and other dry stock enjoy a big drink of hot water twice a day. We call it "goat tea" and serve it about 105°F when the weather is its coldest.
Lack of available water, or water at a temperature that discourages maximum consumption, is an inhibiting factor. It is the dry matter that a goat ingests that fuels the rumen-furnace, which is the basis of a goat’s ability to maintain body temperature. When a goat is forced to live on the edge and is challenged with the ability to maintain her heat, she will channel calories needed for milk production and nourishment of unborn kids to other areas, and may even face a health risk to survival from the deficit.
Hauling hot water from the house or a water heater in the milk house is a of genuine benefit to the growth of small kids, dry stock, and bucks. Large rumens, in good working order, are the goal for these various members of one’s herd. When we bottle feed kids we always follow the bottle of milk with a bottle of hot water. Carry the milk bottles floating in a pail full of hot water and refill the bottles to offer the water to the kids when they finish. If lambar units are used to feed kids in groups, fill quart jars with milk and surround them with water. As the fast nursers finish their milk, flip their tube out of the empty jar and into the surrounding water. It keeps the stronger kids from knocking off the slower kids and will provide them with a rumen-stretching amount of liquid. They leave the feeding area with a warm tummy and benefit in growth from the additional units of heat. As a side benefit, they are also rinsing out the tubes and nipples for easier clean up.
To start hand-raised kids in a manner that competes with the warmth and nurturing a goat mother can provide, we have looked at the issues of warmth carefully. While an animal heating pad like those used in the hog industry might be ideal for very young kids, care must be taken to not over crowd the pen. We use ours under a plastic box to further protect it from accidental damage. It serves no more than three or four evenly sized babies. Lacking this equipment, a goat nest of heavy, clean straw under a large cardboard box provides a positive buffer against the cold.
Once again, take caution not to mix large and small kids, or overcrowd the pen. Be aware of moisture buildup that can be a forerunner of pneumonia. Kids will jump on top of a cardboard box and can trap mates inside if you do not cut the top and secure it to a steadying corner. Well-ventilated is the watchword for all goat housing both winter and summer. Doors and windows placed high in the wall of the barn may be left open beneficially, if they are placed on walls not receiving the prevailing wind. Fashion a kid’s cardboard box with this in mind.
Milder weather finds us keeping track of greater variation in temperatures and greater difficulties from winter precipitation. To prepare for the worst in intermittent dips below freezing, we fall back on survival skills learned up north. All goat pens must be monitored for moisture buildup. The barn roof also will collect moisture in humid weather and actually "rain" inside if ventilation is lacking. Keeping goats in a draft free environment in all temperatures with easy access to water made the most desirable temperature for maximum consumption yield big benefits to the herdsman no matter what his latitude.