Dealing with livestock in the cold

We are fairly new to keeping livestock in Canadian winter conditions. We want to share what we have learned.

Dealing with livestock in the cold

We have seen some of the people in Texas really struggling with the sudden cold that they have gotten down there recently, especially the fellow homesteaders.

While many from up North are tempted to light-heartedly make fun of them struggling with what is normal to us up North, we get that it is a serious matter. Here in Canada, people know that winter is coming and they know roughly when it will hit and they can prepare for it.

We are originally from South Africa where nothing is built to handle the cold, not even the small towns that we lived in near the base of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu Natal. Most of the people there freeze their butts off in winter, resorting to wrapping themselves in blankets in their own homes in the evenings while walking around the house and cranking up the oil-filled electric radiators if they can afford to do so.

When we moved to the UK, in our first winter there we watched as London ground to a halt from less than 6 inches of snow.

When we moved to Canada, all of this winter stuff was brand new to us, especially with regards to dealing with livestock in the cold.

So, in short, we get it and we wanted to share what we have learned and what we do, in the hopes that it might help others, especially our friends down in Texas at this time.

Water

Water is probably the toughest part. It is fairly easy to get animals some cover and something edible, but keeping water as a liquid below temperatures at which it likes to be liquid is definitely a challenge.

Poultry

For our poultry, we use the "don't fight it" strategy.

We put out water in the rubber livestock bowls and the water inevitably freezes over the course of the day.

Ignore the colour of the water, the ducks usually slosh their food around in the water and it makes it look really gross.

So, each morning we smash the ice out of the bowl. The trick that we figured out is to put the bowl on its side and drop it so that the ice cracks along the length of the bowl. Then rotate the bowl while dropping it to shatter the ice all the way around which usually makes the ice all fall out.

We have seen people turn the bowl upside-down and jump on it, but rubber becomes pretty inflexible when cold and this is a good way to tear it over time. Dropping it on the side transfers the energy directly to the ice.

We then fill it up and watch the poultry come running.

In this method, the water is only really available for the morning on the coldest days, but the birds seem to get enough water in this time.

In previous years we used the normal chicken waterers in the chicken coop, but the ducks made a huge mess in there and it would freeze in there and we would have to deal with the same problems.

At least outside, it doesn't matter how much of a mess they make.

Cattle, sheep and goats

For the bigger livestock, we use a plug-in water heater that we place in an insulated drinking trough.

Every morning we will up some 5-gallon buckets in the house and cart them over to the water trough.

We then take the night-time cover off of the trough and add the new buckets of water.

This method will obviously not work in the case of a power outage, but we could do the same thing as with the chickens if we had to, it would just take a lot more time.

Food

Feed usually doesn't freeze that easily.

Hay for the bigger animals and grain for the chickens are usually fine to leave out in the cold.

For the birds we feed grain in the chicken coop and we throw food scraps out on the snow.

We know of people who leave their hay bales outside, but keeping them under shelter helps to keep them dry which prevents moulding and keeps them fresher. Wrapped bales would be fine outside.

We keep our bales in the barn.

There were a lot more bales in here a couple of months ago. We had a very bad hay year in 2020, so the hay was scarce and we are looking at various techniques to try and stretch it, including collecting vegetable scraps for the cows and buying alfalfa and timothy cubes to soak in warm water to feed to them.

Our strategy with feeding the hay is to put it up high with the tractor and then it is one of the kids' jobs to pull pieces of hay off and drop it down into their pallet hay feeder below.

Shelter

What we have discovered so far in Canada is that animals are surprisingly resilient to cold. For the most part, you just need to keep them dry and out of the wind and they will be just fine.

Poultry

For our chickens, we converted this old workshop, that was on our farm when we bought it, into a chicken coop.

Their food and nest boxes are kept in the coop and we shut them in at night to stop them from being eaten by raccoons. But in the mornings we open up the door to let them out and they all waddle out to embrace the chill and get something to drink.

Here is a noisy video from this morning of all the birds filing out of the coop.

We leave the door open for them all day, only closing them up at night when the sun goes down.

Cattle, sheep and goats

As mentioned before, the animals have access to the barn to get their food.

The door in the back is permanently open, so at any point, the animals can get out and walk around in the snow or get to their water, which is outside.

The barn is not a lot warmer than the outside temperatures, but it keeps them dry and out of the wind if they choose it.

Bees

We also have bees, but this is our first year keeping them, so take what we are saying with a pinch of salt.

Most people in Canada keep bees in the fairly standard Langstroth hive.

We have some sneaky plans to build some insulated Layens Hives for the coming season to be fancy, but 99% of people use the Langstroths as shown here.

In winter, it is said that the main thing that will kill bees is the moisture build-up in the hive, rather than the cold it's self (assuming that they have enough honey to get through winter).

This year winter we wrapped our hives in tar paper which seems to be a common practice around here.

We occasionally sweep the snow away from the hive entrances after a snow, but otherwise, leave them alone.

Bedding

For both the bigger animals and the poultry we use a deep wood chip litter to handle animal backside output over winter.

We use this wood chipper on the back of the tractor.

Ideally, we should chip the wood in spring or summer and let it dry out for a year to be more absorbent. We will try to do that in the future, but for now, chipping it and using it soon after works well enough.

We usually chip into a couple of big IBC totes and then get the kids to help bucket up some wood chips each morning and spread the wood chips over the soiled spots in the barn and chicken coop.

For the bigger livestock, the combination of wood chips and messed hay builds up pretty quickly.

We had to put a couple of extra boards in this weekend to stop it all falling down onto us when we open the gate into that part of the barn.

Cleaning out in spring can be hard work.

Last year we cleaned it all out by hand, shovelling it into the tractor bucket and driving around the barn to the big compost pile.

This year we are going to try to open up that side of the barn so that the tractor will fit in and the compost can be removed with the tractor bucket directly.

Containment

Something that we hadn't thought of initially was what happens to the 3 foot high fences when we get 2 feet of snow over winter.

The answer is, you get a 1-foot high fence.

That's exactly what is happening at this spot in the fence.

We solved the animal escape problem by adding a couple of strands of electric fence on top.

Here is something else that we didn't think about...

Apparently, snow acts as an insulator, meaning that if animals are standing on the snow and touch the electric fence, they don't get shocked.

To overcome this, we thought of using the page wire fence as the ground during winter so that if the animals touched the hot wire as well as the page wire, they would get the shock that they need to stay in their paddock.

This was later confirmed to us to be a common strategy by a local friend of ours that has been keeping animals in Canada his whole life.

Final thoughts

While this is not necessarily the "correct" way to do things here in Canada, it is what works for us and we are always willing to learn and adapt what we do.

We hope that this helps people who are similarly new to keeping livestock in cold weather and hopefully will help our Texan friends with some ideas of how to ride out the current crazy conditions that they find themselves in at the moment.

God Bless.