5 Tips To Prep Your Herd For Winter

Before temperatures drop below freezing, give some thought to how you will feed, house and care for your animals.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Like in the parable of the ant and the grasshopper, late fall is the time to take stock of your stock. Increasing caloric demands coupled with lack of pasture in many geographical areas in the winter can put your herd or flock in a bind if you’re not ready. Here are some things to consider before the snow settles to help prepare your animals for the cold.

1. Finalize Your Feed Plans Through Winter

This may seem like a basic, almost silly question to ask yourself, but go ahead: What are you going to feed your herd or flock for the next four months? If your pastures are bare (or snow covered) do you have enough hay or other forage to get them through? If you run short, do you know where to get more? Do you have a place to store extra? Running through the logistics while supplies aren’t depleted gives you breathing room to figure out the hows, wheres and whens of supplemental feeding.

2. Analyze Your Forage

Sometimes simply having enough forage to get through winter isn’t enough. Knowing the quality of that forage gives you the understanding of how much energy is actually contained in what you’re feeding. If what you’re feeding is low quality, then you may need to feed more than you initially calculated. Remember that not all timothy hays (or orchard grass hays or alfalfa) are created equal. Sending a sample to your nearest university extension agent will show you values from crude protein and other nutritional components; these are things you can’t tell just by eyeballing the bale.

Ideally, you should feed higher-quality roughage if you’re in an area with rough winters because cattle, horses, sheep and goats burn more calories trying to keep warm. Alternatively, just because you have low-quality roughage doesn’t mean you need to worry. Just be aware you may need to supplement.

3. Assess BCS In Early Winter

Evaluating the body condition score (BCS) of the animals in your herd early in the season is a great and simple way to get a baseline on body weights prior to inclement weather. This gives you a starting point to compare how you’re feeding your herd now to how you may need to feed them in a month or so when factoring in weather. Losing one grade of BCS is sometimes expected during winter, but two or more (on a nine-point scale) means you need to change how and what you’re feeding.

4. Separate Animals If Needed

For many small- to medium-sized herds on small acreage, it may be helpful to separate animals into small groups based on dietary needs so you can feed more accurately based on need. Animals may be housed according to similar BCS, age or pregnancy status. For example, with sheep or goats, separating out dams carrying twins or triplets is a good practice, as they need more calories than those only carrying singles. Likewise, first time heifers expecting early winter calves certainly require more help than any open cows or steers you may have in the same group. If you’re thinking about separating your herd out, now’s the time to consider location and spacing needs, too.

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5. Check Your Facility

Who wants to mend a broken gate in sub-zero temperatures? Well, no one, if offered the choice. Before the mercury drops and snow covers the ground, check your farm’s vitals including fences, windbreaks and run-ins, gates, and waterers. Do you need a generator? Are any places near water troughs or feeders in danger of flooding? If you’re using your barn for feed storage, do you still have room for an impromptu sick area to shelter an animal in need? Brainstorming “what-ifs” can put your property in a new light when considering the limitations that bad weather can bring. It’s best to think things over now.

The peace of mind that comes with knowing your herd is going to be comfortable and content during the winter can easily be achieved with a little forward thinking in late fall. Here’s to a safe and snug winter for your and your herd or flock.

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