With preparations, livestock can be kept safe, sound and warm

The Winter Farmyard

by Constance Breese

The Winter Farmyard

Randi Baird

Mitchell Posin of the Allen Farm spends time with his sheep in the cold climate. A good diet and body composition help the animals keep warm.  

Farm animals have communal living pretty well worked out. Looking out over peaceful pastured animals is as soothing to my eyes as looking out over Nantucket sound. The sometimes subtle but ever present social structure helps animals navigate life in all seasons, but perhaps most importantly in winter. Within each group pastured together, there is a hierarchy. There is one lead animal and all the others respect this position.

Sheep society, in particular, is one where the ability to read facial expressions and pupil size has evolved over time to allow for a peaceful coexistence and to help keep the flock safe. Sheep have no defenses other than traveling in a flock (safety in numbers) and escaping from a predator by fleeing. Herd members learn to follow the leader, whether that animal is leading them to food or away from danger. These adaptive skills are not foolproof. One winter day, I got an urgent call about sheep that had been attacked by dogs. When I arrived on the farm the blood on the snow was an alarming sight.

When we examined the flock, only one ewe was injured: the leader. She had lost a lot of blood. I expected to find bite wounds from the dogs. But this was not the case. The lead sheep ran to escape the dogs, plowed directly into the snow-covered fence, and lacerated her neck.

The snow-covered wire fences may have allowed access for the dogs and proved to be a hidden hazard for the sheep. This was a tough lesson learned about winter preparedness for the farmer.

That’s when they are at their peak condition, having eaten grass all spring and summer. Since feed must be provided all winter, the farm often reduces the herd in the fall, keeping breeding animals and the younger stock that has yet to mature to market weight. Fall is also when farms plan for feed deliveries and storage, and begin making insulated boxes for waterers. Animals do their own cold weather preparations naturally.

Cows acclimate gradually to winter, developing a good hair coat, and putting on body fat if enough feed is provided. Hair and fat serve as good insulation against the cold. In winter, cows increase their metabolism to increase heat production, but this also increases appetite. Without pasture grasses, farm animals are completely dependent on their owners to assess daily feed requirements. These need to be adjusted for exceptionally cold, wet, or windy days. If cows or any other livestock get too cold, heat loss and stress makes them become susceptible to illness.

Last December I was called out to see Mocha (not her real name), a Jersey cow that had collapsed in a field with a condition called milk fever. The farmer said she was flat out on her side, moaning. Instead of making a sausage and egg sandwich for breakfast, I rushed to get dressed for what I knew would be a long, cold farm call.

Milk fever happens to cows when their calcium levels drop very low. Mocha was very new to the herd, and had lost some weight due to stress and cold. Being new meant being last in line for feed and hay. She recently gave birth, and nursing her calf lowered the calcium in her blood.

However, calcium, the healthy nutrient we all know, is actually toxic to the heart when given too fast intravenously. We spent an hour or more in the field running a slow drip of calcium and glucose into Mocha. I listened to her heart rate and rhythm during the treatment. She recovered nicely and stood up just after I pulled the needle from her vein.

I was glad to get back in my car and warm up. Mocha was already eating and obviously better. The farmer had put a dozen eggs and a package of sausage in my car. I headed home to make my egg sandwich.