When you live in Northwestern Pennsylvania, the winters can be pretty brutal. I am talking -25 degree wind chill brutal. Keeping your animals warm in those frigid temps can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be. What you need are tips on how to help your goats cope with winter so they stay healthy even when it’s frigid cold out.
When learning how to raise dairy goats that are healthy and happy all year long the number one thing you need to have is a warm and dry shelter. But more on that in a bit.
When I first started raising animals, I used to worry about them in the winter, so much so that during my first winter, I made a costly mistake. You see, I thought my goats could not handle the frigid temps where we lived, so what did I do?
Well, I loaded my barn up with heat lamps.
Six of them, to be exact, and I was pretty pleased with myself too. I thought I was doing a great thing for my animals by heating things up. And I have to say that our barn was cozy warm, and each goat stall had a constant source of heat.
But what I was doing was actually the opposite of a good thing.
I was not trusting my animals to handle the cold weather on their own and I rushed in to supply heat to help them cope, however doing so did not allow them to adapt gradually to the cooler temperatures as nature intended.
When the temperatures begin to cool down in the fall, all livestock will adapt gradually by developing a thicker coat or a layer of downy feathers. Goats do the same by growing a thick undercoat of cashmere in winter. As temperatures continue to drop their coats will continue to thicken until they are covered with a wonderful layer of protection.
This means when winter does finally hit, their bodies are conditioned enough to handle the worst.
So, that first year when I set up all those heat lamps? Well, it was a disaster. What happened was I made the barn so warm my goats began to shed. Yes, my goats were shedding…IN JANUARY!
The artificial warmth in the barn told their bodies that they no longer needed that thick full coat they were just starting to grow. Needless to say, my goats soon found that if they did not stay close to the heat lamps they would get cold quickly.
I also found that my goats would not go outside in the winter that year either. They just couldn’t handle the cold temps and even though they craved the sunshine they could not be out in it for longer than a few minutes.
I actually almost caught our barn on fire with those heat lamps that first winter. That was when I learned just how dangerous heat lamps can be. After several barn fires that year from others using heat lamps I realized they are actually one of the top causes of barn fires in the winter.
I have since learned that heat lamps are used only with newborns and only when absolutely necessary. This is something we will talk about later on in this article.
If you are still worried about your goats and how well they will handle the cold temps where you live, no worries. There are a few things you can do to help keep your animals warm in the winter.
HOW TO HELP YOUR GOATS COPE WITH WINTER.
This list of tips are all things I have used or have tried myself and they really do help our animals stay healthy and happy throughout the entire winter. Remember, if you can handle the cold when bundled up, then your goats can as well when their winter fur coats are able to grow as needed.
TIP #1. GET THEM OUT OF THE COLD.
If you do not have a barn or some sort of shelter that your goats can use to get out of the weather, you will want to start there.
Depending on where you live and how bad your winters get will determine if you need a full barn or just a lean-to. A lean-to is a 3 sided structure that will do well to protect your animals from rain and some snow. The trick is to have the open side facing away from the natural wind currents in your area.
Goats are not like horses or cows, they need to have some sort of protection that will allow them to get out of the rain and snow. Before the cold weather hits make sure you are ready with a shelter that is enclosed on at least 3 sides with a way to close off the 4th when the weather really calls for it.
To close off that 4th side in a pinch, you can use a tarp or even a piece of scrap wood for protection from heavy winds to help keep your goats warm.
You also want to be sure your shelter has a floor to keep your goats up off the frigid ground.
Next, fill your shelter up with plenty of dry straw or wood shavings to give them even more warmth and insulation. A deep lean too with a floor that is packed with extra bedding is surprisingly warm even in the cold winter.
SLCG PRO TIP: It is important to make sure you do not seal the shelter up completely as this will do more harm them good to your animals.
Ensure you have good airflow to prevent pneumonia or other lung issues from occurring in your animals. This goes for barns, chicken coops, and yes, goat shelters. Pneumonia is something that can happen if you do not have fresh air coming in for your animals to breathe.
For this reason, I really like to use tarps.
They are easy to adjust, allow the airflow needed for your goats, and keep out the wind better than you may imagine. You will need to be sure you purchase heavy-duty tarps as these tend to hold up better in even the heaviest of winds.
TIP #2. USE THE DEEP LITTER METHOD.
Nothing chills an animal more quickly than the cold frigid ground. The best way I have found to combat this is to use the deep litter method.
WHAT IS THE DEEP LITTER METHOD?
Simply put, you leave the bedding where it is allowing it to “deepen” all winter long. This allows the hay and bedding to build up to a nice thick layer adding a barrier between the cold ground and your livestock.
This will really help to insulate and keep your goats warm.
Every week you can add a layer of fresh bedding to keep the shelter from smelling sour. This can be straw, wood shavings, or sawdust. I would refrain from using hay for bedding as your goats may nibble on it while lying down. This is not ideal as the bedding is usually soiled and can cause your goats to get sick or cause worms to break out.
Don’t worry about things getting too smelly. Luckily goat manure has very little odor but goat urine does. Each time you go into to feed or water your goats, take the time to smell. If you smell ammonia you will want to neutralize that smell as it can lead to lung issues if your animals breathe it in for an extended period of time.
Baking soda is an effective odor neutralizer and deodorizer. While your animals are out of the shelter you can sprinkle some down to help control the odor.
TIP #3. BUILD A TEMPORARY RAISED BED.
If you find your goats standing to sleep, then this is usually a hint that the ground is way too cold. Every year I build raised goat beds out of discarded pallets to make things a bit more comfortable and to get them up off the ground. You can see my step-by-step tutorial here, How to Build a Raised Goat Bed.
The goal is simple, find a way to get your goats off of the ground to better help your goats cope with winter.
TIP #4. GIVE PLENTY OF FRESH WARM WATER.
When temperatures are really cold, your animal’s water can freeze pretty quickly. And your goats will not touch frozen water. Fresh water at all times is the key for healthy animals and even though it’s cold water is crucial to your animal’s health. To help you can offer warm water first thing in the morning.
For our goats, we give my fresh warm water 3-4 times a day in the very frigid winter. Doing this first thing in the morning will help to encourage your goats to drink. Surprisingly goats love the warm water and will usually come over just as soon as they see me pouring it.
You can use a heated waterer if you have electricity in your goat barn or you can bring out jugs of hot water from the house as I do. By the time you pour it the water will cool down a bit so your goats can start drinking.
You can also put a splash of organic apple cider vinegar for an added boost. Most animals love the taste and the flavor of the ACV will help them to drink.
Like humans, animals do prefer fresh clean water. If you find your animals are not drinking try dumping out the water and replacing it with a fresh supply. Usually, this is enough to do the trick and get your goats drinking again.
TIP #5. GIVE PLENTY OF HAY.
One thing nice about goats is they have a natural way to warm up from the inside out. Hay. When your goats eat hay they get their rumens working, and that acts as a natural furnace, warming them up pretty quickly.
To help your goats stay warm in the winter longer, use this tip. Rather than giving your goats a huge helping of hay once a day you can try giving them 2-3 smaller helpings throughout the day instead. The fresh supply will cause your curious goats to come over, and usually, they will begin eating right away. This will do two things.
- Get your goats up and moving around and, in turn, get that blood flowing.
- Get them munching on fresh good, quality hay, and this will get their rumens working.
The main goal with your goats is to be sure the hay is good quality.
Alfalfa is the best hay you can give your goats, but not all areas grow it. This means you will need to find the best cut that is native to your area and supplement it if needed.
For our goats we feed Chaffhaye. This is fermented alfalfa hay that is concentrated, so not much is needed to benefit your goats. Chaffhaye can be found by a supplier if there is one in your area.
Just know this is an expensive option so if that is not in your budget at this time look to increase the value of the local hay you are feeding instead. This could be as simple as upgrading to 2nd or 3rd cuts if you can find them in your area.
Not sure where to find these cuts? Call local farmers and ask them. More often than not, they will help you locate the cuts and quality you are looking for.
TIP #6. LET THE SUNSHINE IN!
There is something to be said of the warm sunshine even on a 20-degree day. When the sun is hot and strong I like to open up the barn and let the goats do a little sunbathing, and they just love it! Remember, their coats are thick and warm, and most goats crave the sunshine, especially in the winter. Give them some time in the sun and watch their spirits improve.
SLCG PRO TIP: Please be aware that only your healthy older goats should do this; younger kids or weak goats should be kept out of the cold at all costs. Remember also to only do this when the sun is really warm, and there is no wind or precipitation.
TIP #7. GET YOUR GOATS MOVING.
Goats love to play, and luckily I love to play with my goats.
Tag is their favorite…especially when I am the target. 🙂 I will run around with my goats to get the blood moving, and before you know it, they are all playing and running and warming up.
If you have no time to play, at the very least, set up your pens in a triangle to force everyone to move and to help keep animals warm. What I mean by that is have the water at one point, your goat’s minerals at another point, and your goat’s hay at the third point. This will keep your animals moving without them even realizing it.
TIP #8. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE SHIVERS.
That first winter I used to panic whenever I saw my goats shivering. That to me meant they were cold, and I needed to help them warm up. An old farmer friend of mine told me that shivering was their way of warming up, and that was actually a good thing.
It’s a cold goat that is not shivering that you need to worry about.
WHAT NOT TO DO IN THE WINTER?
- Do not use heat lamps unless you have very young newborn kids. Instead, allow your goats to adapt to the colder temps naturally and grow a thick downy coat.
- Do not put coats or other coverings on your goats. This will matt the hair down and not allow it to grow and thicken, so it can insulate your goats, helping to keep them warm.
- Do not ignore a change in your goats. If they are not eating, drinking, or moving as they normally do, this is a sign that something is up. Take the cues you are given and investigate when needed.
- Touch your goats. Pet them, feel them. A thick coat can mask quite a few issues. Pet your goats every time they eat and drink so you can recognize their body condition and again be alerted when something is off.
UPDATED: MORE COLD CARE TIPS.
I got a reader question that I wanted to share in the hopes that it will help you if you are dealing with the same issues with your goat herd.
What can you do if your goats are shivering off and on during a cold snap?
The trick with any animal is to allow them to acclimate to weather changes slowly. This will ensure that their body is better prepared to endure colder temperatures more naturally. For most goats, this is done by growing a thick undercoat of fur called cashmere.
Goats are able to grow this undercoat during the fall as the weather cools down. For us, that means always keeping barn doors open (when the weather allows), giving our herd that chance to prepare and adapt.
With that being said, there are a few breeds that tend to do better in colder temps. Those breeds are Nubians, Nigerian dwarfs, and some Swiss breeds.
If your goats are shivering and you are concerned that there may be something else going on, here is a quick list to refer to as you begin taking a closer look at your animals.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IF YOUR GOATS ARE EXCESSIVELY SHIVERING IN COLD TEMPERATURES?
How are your goats eating? Is their appetite normal? If temperatures are particularly cold, you can up their food intake a bit to help them cope.
Always be sure you give plenty of good quality hay. As goats eat hay their rumen acts as a furnace, warming them up from the inside out.
If their body condition is in good shape, that is a plus. Always touch and pet your goat feeling their ribs, hips, or other areas that tend to show the first signs of losing weight.
Hydrated goats are healthy goats. To help them to drink more routinely, get into the habit of giving them fresh water every single day.
In most cases, a little shivering is fine…but too much is a sign that something may be up. Do your due diligence and watch for other signs that may signal an illness or injury.
Goats can absolutely thrive in frigid temperatures without artificial heat and be the better for it. I found out that first year by warming my goats up that I was doing more harm than good.
Now I trust my goats to adapt to the colder temperatures naturally, and they are hardier, stronger, and healthier because of it. By allowing your goats to acclimate to the cold temps naturally, you might just find that they will do well without any interference from us.