You’d be surprised at how warm our barn is on winter nights. A few nights ago, the thermometer read -10 as I headed out the door, and the wind was howling, but inside the barn it was below freezing, but surprisingly tolerable. Close down a comparatively small space, insulate the floors with dry bedding and fill it with warm life, and the combined body heats make it surprisingly pleasant.
Up in the rafters, some of the chickens and the turkeys are nested for the night, and they snuggle together. In the rest of the barn, they also nest in a heap. The goats snuggle together for warmth, and so do the two bunnies who are able to share space – the other buns have boxes to get cozy in. In the winter, all the animals want touch, to share our warmth. The bunnies hop over for apples and petting. The goats scratch their heads against our coats. One of the hens even sits on my shoulder.
One of the first things everyone asks about our livestock is whether we provide supplemental heat for them in winter – and the answer is no. What we provide is ample food, thick layers of bedding, and shelter to allow the animals to keep themselves warm, and they do so admirably. Most people getting livestock for the first time worry about them – they don’t feel that it is humane to leave chickens out in the winter. But if you provide adequate shelter and calories and choose breeds appropriate to your climate, supplemental heat should be unnecessary.
Indeed, some of the animals make the case that they need even less than we give them – a number of my chickens actively abandon the barn and its warm shelter for the 3 sided hay-barn. The wind blows across them at night, and they choose this – they are encouraged into the barn, we try and seduce them with food, but no, they prefer their nests in the hay. The ducks, too, have to be seduced inside even in the worst weather. Four of our ducks were actually lost by a neighbor – for three weeks, through the heaviest snow of the season, the ducks lived entirely outside, without being fed or tended. They arrived with some relief in my barn, and certainly were a little thin, but they are still outside in sleet storms and bitter cold.
We recently lost our Bourbon Red Tom Turkey (If anyone in my area has a bourbon red tom, or perhaps other heritage breed for crossing that they’d like to sell or barter, we’d be pleased!) because he preferred the willow tree as a night roost to the barn. Try as we might, we couldn’t get him back in, even with all the enticements of his turkey hens. Up early to forage by the creek, a fox got him. Our dogs ran the fox off, but it was too late.
The most important thing we do is increase feed in the winter and reduce our demands on the bodies of our animals. For this reason, we do not light our barn. Poultry lay eggs in response to daylight length – left to themselves, their egg production will fall back to nothing for a month or two from mid-November to mid-January, and then gradually, slowly rise towards a spring peak. If you put a light on in your barn, you can fool your chickens into laying more eggs, right through the winter lull. I have no quibble with people who do this – many people, for example, use light to keep hens laying and then butcher their first year’s hens after the next batch is hatched out. But since we keep our hens for several years, I consider it less stressful on their bodies to give them a natural period of quiet.
The goats also get more hay, and some extra sunflower seeds (which also provide Selenium, needed in our selenium-poor soils) to keep them warm, and we reduce our demands for milk. It usually takes a us a few weeks, as the pastures dry up or are covered with snow and we shift over to hay for the goats to shift over fully to our new methods of management – we watch their milk and their body weights, and try and figure out what they need. This is particularly important when you are using homegrown supplements, rather than purchased feed.
We could probably safely keep the chickens in something pretty primative, just enough shelter to keep them out of the wind. When we had geese, who are incredibly hardy, we provided them with a doghouse, and a bale of straw to block the wind at the entrance – but I only saw the geese go into it a few times. For the most part, they preferred to nest behind the straw bale, out of the wind, but outside. I’ve come to the conclusion that except for stupid turkeys who get themselves eaten, you can mostly trust the animals to choose for themselves how much shelter they need.
The goats are a somewhat different situation – Nigerian dwarf goats, as their name implies, come from Africa. They are not creatures of cold climates, and while they do well enough here, they definitely do need some shelter. Moreover, since all goats would rather die than get wet ;-), they need something to keep the rain and snow off. My goats will be standing out in the bitterest weather as the wind howls upon them at times, but let a single drop of warm spring rain touch them, you’d think they were dying. During the daytime, our goats have access to their stall in the barn for shelter all the time. On the very worst days – snowy or really bitterly cold and windy, I might keep them in and the barn doors shut – but if I open them, they will generally come out, at least for a while, to stand in the sunshine if there is any.
We have a large thicket of willow, and the goats are doing a good job of clearing the shoots out (which we want them to do), and they spend much of their time along the edge of the woods, trimming these willows in winter. Natural browsers, the goats can find food even in winter. That said, however, this is a supplement to the summer’s hay.
Watering is different in the winter than the rest of the year – because water bowls and buckets will freeze, we water the animals more often with warm water. This can be avoided with plug-in buckets that don’t freeze, but we don’t have these for most of our animals, so we just carry jugs and buckets of warm water. I find it worth the money to buy a duplicate set of rabbit waterers, so that each one can be brought into the house to defrost after the bitterest nights. Animals drink more when the water is warm, waterers are clean and need a lot of fresh water when they are eating mostly dried foods like hay.
We feed root vegetables through the winter – both discards that we don’t want and also some put up for just that purpose – the goats and rabbits get apples or carrots each day, or pumpkins until they run out, while the chickens get all the scraps. I feel that all the animals are happier with some fresh food, rather than just dry hay and grain.
I do wait for the weather to be warm for babies, for the most part – I kick the hens off their nests when they start to set in January and February, and wait until March, because we’ve learned by experience that early hatches don’t prosper as well in our cold climate. We also check for eggs regularly, because the frozen ones tend to crack.
By now, mid-February, every creature is longing for spring, including me. We’ve eaten the pumpkins, everyone feels that winter has lost its novelty and wants fresh green growing things. But there’s a good bit of winter to go, so they nestle down in the dry bedding and ruminate or peck for fallen grain, and wait, as patiently as they can, for spring and a chance to run in the grass.