Feed your animals extra roughage during the winter months so they can generate heat more easily. A holiday treat is OK, too, as long as it contains safe ingredients.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or another holiday on your farm, it’s important to get an early start thinking about the season’s impact on our livestock friends. For a safe, sane and wonderful holiday, keep these hazards in mind.
1. Unsafe Décor
Stress safety when carrying holiday spirit to areas where animals live. Some twinkle lights, especially older styles, get hot enough to ignite flammables, such as hay or bedding. Plus, their cords can fray, leading to a short circuit. For barns, always use updated strands of outdoor-style, UL- or ETL- approved lights that have fuses in the plugs. Before using lights in or on the barn, carefully check each strand for bare wires, loose connections and broken bulbs. Then place them on a fire-resistant surface, and plug them in for 15 minutes to make sure they don’t melt or smoke.
When plugging in lights, use only three-pronged extension cords approved for outdoor use. Don’t overload them, as cords can get hot enough to burn.
To hang lights, secure them with insulated holders (not tacks or nails) or run strands of lights through hooks. Hang them where your livestock’s curious lips can’t reach them; this is especially important with inquisitive species like horses and goats. Most importantly, unplug outdoor barn lights before going to bed and indoor lights when no one is in the barn; there are too many flammables in a barn to take chances.
Decorating animals’ stalls can be a fun way to celebrate the season. Stick to items that won’t harm animals should they eat them. Skip the plastic and glass decorations; instead opt for real evergreen garland and popcorn balls dyed with food coloring.
2. Unhealthy Holiday Treats
Looking for a special gift for your four-legged and feathered friends? Think a tasty bran mash for your horse or dairy cow and treats for all of your animal buddies. Healthy, animal-safe treats are a good way to include your livestock in the holiday gift-giving.
When fixing holiday treats, keep in mind that not every food is safe for your animals to eat. Avoid feeding chocolate or avocados to any livestock species. Cabbage, broccoli and other brassicas rarely show up in animal treats—a good thing, as they’re toxic to some species and cause gas in others, which can lead to colic or bloat. If you’re unsure whether a treat is safe to prepare for your livestock, consult a livestock veterinarian before heading to the kitchen.
3. Dangerous Travel
Creating a new holiday tradition is a fun way to liven up the season and give back to your community. Take your alpacas to a nursing home to meet the residents and distribute cookies. Volunteer your donkey and a few tame sheep for your community’s living nativity scene. Pack up your children and a goat or two and “go julebukk,” the Norwegian version of Christmas caroling.
Take care when transporting your animals to holiday events—don’t just bundle them into the back of your SUV and hit the road. For smaller livestock, fold down the seats down and haul them in pet carriers or large dog crates placed in the back of your vehicle.
For larger animals, use a horse trailer. (You can even use it for hauling a pair of goats, an alpaca or a few small sheep.) Ensure the trailer is ventilated but that cold air doesn’t stream in and chill your passengers. If there’s any doubt, fit them with blankets or sweaters to keep them warm.
4. Unaware Visitors
Holiday guests might want to meet your animals, but anyone unaccustomed to farm life might not understand how to safely interact with them. Before taking guests into the barnyard, explain the ground rules. These can include:
- Don’t feed fistfuls of party treats to inquisitive goats.
- Don’t take small children around large animals, and don’t allow them to run or squeal.
- Stay away from aggressive animals. (Point out aggressive animals to stay away from.)
- Only feed a pre-approved animal treat out of the flat of your hand.
- Move around horses and animals slowly to avoid startling them.
You might add to this list because you know the operations of your barnyard best. Be sure to clearly express your safety guidelines with your guests and supervise them at all times.
5. Sticky Sitter Situation
If you plan to travel over the holiday, arrange for a farm sitter early so you’re sure to have someone reliable to watch over your livestock. Use a farm-sitter checklist to make ensure your sitter is prepared and your livestock are safe before you leave town.
If you can’t get a professional sitter, find a livestock-savvy friend or family member to feed and check on your livestock at least twice a day. Ask this person to visit the farm a few days before you leave so you can introduce them to your animals and show them where things are stored. Explain any special needs and demonstrate how to perform specific chores. Don’t forget to leave your veterinarian’s contact information and an emergency contact list for them to have on hand in the event of a problem.
6. Chilly Animals
Cold weather around the holidays can pose a danger to your livestock, so this year, give the gift of toasty warmth.
Animals need a warm place to get out of wind, snow and rain, so if your barn needs repairs, do them now. Also consider a warm stable blanket or turnout for your horse or make coats for your goats. Another fine gift for livestock: a heated waterer or submergible heater for a bigger stock tank. Your animals will appreciate warm water whenever they want it and you won’t have to lug it to the barn.
Remember that animals need extra bedding to snuggle into; a deep bed of clean straw is best for winter use. Feed that helps the animal produce more heat naturally will also help when winter winds blow. This usually means extra roughage, not grain. Feeding too much grain can lead to gastrointestinal problems, like colic, in horses and donkeys, bloat in cattle, and enterotoxemia in ruminants, such as sheep, goats, llamas and alpacas
Chickens need extra warmth, too. You may want to heat their coop to keep frostbite at bay. If you do, consider using solar heat or a heated chicken-coop mat instead of a heat lamp; heat lamps can and often do ignite nearby flammables and burn down the structure they’re warming. If you use a heat lamp, don’t clamp it to the wall or suspend it by its cord or a piece of baling twine. Always use a strong, separate hanger and secure the lamp where it won’t overheat flammable bedding. You can also shovel snow high against the outside walls for natural insulation. And warm your chickens from the inside out by providing body-heat-generating feed, such as cracked corn or scratch and water from a heated waterer or dog dish.