How To Keep Animals Healthy In Winter: Tips From Livestock Owners In Montana


Deep snow, frigid temperatures, and energy-sapping wind all spell difficulties for livestock unless proper steps are taken to reduce the impacts of winter conditions. Ensuring their animals are safe and as comfortable as possible is first and foremost on livestock owners’ minds during the winter months. Some go to all lengths to ensure the safety and comfort of their critters, to the point of bringing some animals into their homes.

“We check animals throughout the day,” says Jessie Bidlack of Sweet Prairie Farm in Power, Montana. “We have, on occasion, brought animals inside to be by the wood stove. At one point last January, when it was -30 degrees Fahrenheit, we had a rooster, a piglet, and goat kids in the house by the stove.”

It’s not feasible to bring horses or other herd animals indoors—luckily, large animals can weather winter without major issues. Even so, extra care adds a level of comfort for these animals.


Winter horse care

Bidlack says, “For the horses, we make sure we feed extra portions, and sometimes add a late night and/or a midday feeding. Metabolizing hay is what keeps horses warm so it’s very important they are well-fed.”

While it’s common to see horses on the open range, wind blocks are critical in the depths of winter. Whether it’s a barn, or a three-sided windbreak, being able to step out of the elements is important for horses to maintain adequate body temperature.

Water is the most critical element to a horses comfort and survival during the cold months. “We use tank heaters for the horses, and insulated covers to protect from heat loss as well,” says Bidlack.

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“A horse needs eight-to 12 gallons of water per day,” said Dr. Kelly Manzer, DVM, of K-Heart in Great Falls, Montana. They can’t get that from snow, Manzer added, because they burn too many calories trying to do so.


Older horses need more love

Beyond her years of professional experience, Manzer understands geriatric horses on a personal level. “My horse is going to be 30 this year and he’s out of teeth,” she says.

Manzer’s first recommendation for any horse, and older horses in particular, is to care for their teeth on a regular basis. Having their teeth floated annually (more often if needed), allows them to utilize their feed efficiently.

She says “quidding” (when a horse drops wads of partially chewed hay out of its mouth) is a sign that the teeth need to be floated. Many times, this can be corrected with dental care. But, for older horses, their teeth may simply be beyond help.

“I have my horse on a lot of pellets,” Manzer says. She also adds rice bran, which adds important calories and omega-six fatty acids.

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She says that beet pulp is another popular supplement to add highly digestible fiber and calories to an older horse’s diet, particularly as a hay substitute. It’s important to soak beet pulp for at least 15 minutes before feeding to reduce the risk of a horse choking.

Blanketing is useful for older horses, too, especially during extreme weather events. However, Manzer adds this warning: “Be prudent when blanketing, since it’s more beneficial for a horse to grow a winter coat.”

A final word of advice: Don’t neglect exercise, even in the winter. “A horse needs to move to keep his gut moving,” Manzer said. If you keep your animals in the stall, walk them regularly, and if pain is an issue, consider an anti-inflammatory to encourage movement.


What about the feathered farm animals in the winter?

Chickens and ducks endure the wicked weather just fine if they can access a dry, draft-free area. When chickens roost, they usually keep their feathers over their feet preventing them from freezing. So, the greatest risk of frostbite is to exposed combs.

During a deep freeze, add a heat lamp or flat-panel heater to the coop, which takes the edge off sub-zero temperatures. If you opt for a heat lamp, make sure to use a protective cage around the bulb and keep it out of reach of the flock to reduce the chances of fire. Ducks need a place to bed down to stay warm so adding extra straw for them to snuggle in is a good idea.

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Chickens and ducks require ample calories and unfrozen water. There are heated waterers available if you don’t want to thaw and refill their water multiple times a day.

Final note: If you intend to collect eggs throughout the dark winter days, your birds will need at least 14 hours of light per day. A simple 25-40 watt lightbulb is sufficient to mimic daylight. Place the outlet on a timer to turn it on in the mornings and evenings to extend the daylight hours.


Keeping cows happy

Cows need the same level of care as horses. The Bidlacks, offer their cows more feed during winter, including additional feedings during particularly cold spells. They also provide a place for their animals to get out of the winter and weather. They also use tank heaters to keep open water for the cows.

For cows that are scheduled too calve, it’s a good idea to move then into a barn.

Wintering goats and sheep

“The goats are fed an increase, as well, and have straw in each shelter,” says Bidlack. “We have a barn and will move them indoors if conditions become extreme.”

If they can stay dry, goats typically handle extremes (down to -30 F) without difficulty because of their dense undercoat. For wet, slushy conditions some goat owners use a “goat coat,” which is a water-resistant blanket that helps their goats retain heat in damp conditions.

As with the other animals covered in this article, a shelter for goats is a must, although they should have access to an outdoor pen throughout the season. Pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death for goats, which means good air circulation is a must.

For water, the Bidlacks use a small flexible rubber tub that is easy to keep ice-free. They also bucket out warm water when the weather is especially cold.

Sheep require similar care, although they do not need added protection (unless sheered prior to inclement weather). Remember, when winter sets in they are already wearing the finest cold-weather gear available.

Hogs snuggle in for the winter

Since hogs don’t have a thick coat of fur, they need extra protection during winter. Bidlack says sometimes the hogs can be moved in with other animals (if they all get along) to benefit from additional body heat.

Hogs are also fed more, and Bidlack gives their hogs extra straw so they can burrow underneath to keep warm.


More work for owners

Livestock owners work double-time to keep their animals healthy and safe during winter. Ensuring there is water, ample feed, and places to escape the worst winter weather means you’ll spend more time in the barn or pasture. By doing so you’ll feel some satisfaction and your animals will thank you by moving into spring as healthy as they can be.