Winter Husbandry


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.


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By darwinsdog (not verified) on 11 Feb 2010 #permalink

Grew up on a small farm (wonderful way to grow up!), working on starting a small farm, I've long since decided I don't want livestock to care for (husband heartily concurs). You are doing your darndest to change my mind. Husband is doing his very best to fend off my comments about chickens and ducks and goats.

There's a reason Hebridean blackhouses have the animals at one end of the building, and it is likely that Brochs and round houses often had animals stabled in the lower floor, providing plenty of heat for the humans above.

I grew up on a dairy farm in upstate NY (near Saranac Lake and Malone) and we kept the "critters" (30 cows, 8 horses, a goat, pig and countless chickens) in an unheated barn. My dad always said it's because cows give off so much bodyheat. It was always toasty warm in the barn! Thanks for your essays--reading both of your blogs is a high point in my week!

When we had a milk cow we used to joke that she gave off a lot of BTUs (bovine thermal units). One of our cows also had a mild case of the bad cow disease;).

We keep our chickens out in their tractors all winter (but we live considerably further south than you, here in Virginia.) They do great, and do slow down on their egg laying since, like you, we figure they need to naturally slow down if necessary and don't try to force them with lights. Still, I'm surprised by how many eggs they still lay --- we generally have some eggs to give away all winter with nine hens and two of us to eat the eggs.

I'd probably do things differently if we always had as much snow as this winter, though. Our hens love their tractors but detest snow! Luckily, we build them extra perches, so they can walk around their tractors without getting their feet slushy. :-)

Try Porter's (Kevin Porter, for a new tom. They are VERY good, create some wonderful turkeys and are in the process of re-creating extinct breeds. I got my breeding flock from there and could not be more pleased. I got a Hatcher's Choice assortment and ended up with a Narri pair that are amazing--handsome, big, and aggressive to intruders, to the point that I occasionally find a mess of fur and blood in their pen from an ex-squirrel that foolishly tried to steal their corn. The RP pair that also passed the winter cull are pretty high-quality birds too, although more tame and obviously domesticated in behavior. Really great birds. I kept a couple other hens so I could have trios--one black, one that looks to be from his Silver Dapple program, and they are fine birds too, as healthy and friendly as can be.

even us city folks know the joy of having the cats move up on the bed on cold winter nites.

I'm curious how you feed the sunflower seeds. Hulled or not? Bird seed grade or human grade? And do sunflowers accumulate selenium? I think I'm seeing some nutrient deficiency in my Nigerian Dwarf (pregnant?) doe, and I'd like work more with nutrient-rich foods over injectable minerals.
With deep bedding and four warm goat bodies, our goats are happy in the shed, though they'd prefer we shoveled the snow so they could go out and play.

Hi Karen. I get all the black oil type sunflower seeds I can use free from work, where we grow them for biofuel research. There are several different varieties, as we do variety trials, all mixed together. I feed them unhulled to my chickens & turkeys. At first they didn't seem to know what to do with them and I didn't think they were going to eat them. But they soon learned to hull them and now are voracious for them. I feed them ad lib, in addition to some Purina Layena and a cracked corn/cracked wheat/camolina or canola scratch mix I prepare from grain I also get free from work. Soil selenium around here is high but I have no idea if sunflowers take up Se to harmful extent.

My hens were pullets last year and their production seemed to slack off for awhile around the the solstice but now seems to have picked back up to where it was last fall. My turkey hens stopped laying about two months ago but just yesterday I got my first turkey egg in weeks, so maybe they will start laying again as the days get longer.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 12 Feb 2010 #permalink

I feed sunflower seeds whole - I grow my own mostly, although I've bought untreated bird-seed grade as well. They do bioaccumulate selenium, but I don't think in risky quantities in selenium rich soils.

I would say that if you have a pregnant doe and she's showing signs of deficiency, I would add supplemental nutrition the more direct way while *also* adding the supplemental sunflower seeds. The reason being that if your goats have a selenium deficiency you can get a disease, white muscle disease, that can cause death or heart problems with your kids. I would supplement with nutridrench and perhaps add a pinch of goat mineral to each bit of feed, because you don't want to lose a kid.

If your goat is looking ratty, it may be copper they are deficient in - make sure you are feeding a copper-supplemented mineral, not one for sheep, and nutri-drench will add more copper as well. I give it to them tossed on apple slices if I'm concerned about health.


I'm actually hoping sunflowers accumulate selenium, because we are in the outwash plain of a glacial moraine. Sandy Cape Cod soils. They are well amended with decades of organic growing and lots of compost, but still a mineral poor base.
I've given an injectable mineral supplement, and am feeding minerals in their food (sweet lix brand). I've also treated her for tapeworm, since this doe seems more bothered by them. But she's loosing tufts of hair, mostly undercoat and overall her coat is thin.
We're having trouble getting good hay, and the graze isn't much, so I'm looking at growing forage crops for next winter's feed supplements.
Thanks for sharing what you do. I appreciate having options from what my wonderful, but traditional, breeder friend is doing.
I will look into the nutri-drench as another option and we are harvesting white pine boughs as treats. I am happily anticipating the willows leafing out.