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 I first starting 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 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 nice source of heat.
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 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. As temperatures continue to drop their coats will continue to thicken until they are covered with a wonderful layer of protection.
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 told them they no longer needed that thick full coat. 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. But more on that in a bit.
If you are still worried about your goats and how well they will handle the cold winter temps where you live, no worries. There are still things you can do to help keep your animals warm in the winter.
How to Help your Goats Cope with Winter.
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 from 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.
Fill your shelter up with plenty of dry straw or wood shavings to help insulate them from the cold ground. If your shelter is deep enough your goats will stay quite warm inside.
SLCG PRO TIP: It is important to make sure you do not seal the shelter up completely, you always need to ensure you have good airflow to prevent pneumonia 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 when needed, 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 if you want them to last more than a week on your homestead.
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, deep litter means you do not clean out your stalls all winter long. This lets the hay and bedding 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 in 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 so you are more or less keeping the urine smell down and with it the ammonia smell that can irritate the lungs in your goats.
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 temps 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 getting that blood flowing.
- Get them munching on fresh good quality hay and in turn their rumens working.
The main goal with your goats is to be sure the hay is good quality. Alfalfa is by far 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 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 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 the 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 do its job.
- 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 think coat can mask quite a few issues. Pet your goats as they eat and drink so you can recognize their body condition and again be alerted when something is off.
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.
Our job is to provide them with shelter from the snow and wind, offer plenty of fresh clean water, good quality hay, and a constant supply of minerals. This will support your herd in natural ways so they can flourish even when the snow is falling.