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Preparing Goats and Sheep for Winter

Preparatory work to get your goats and sheep ready for winter is relatively easy. However, the two species are completely different in their ability to handle cold weather. The one thing both need is a constant supply of fresh water that is not frozen, but when it comes to temperatures, the degrees to which goats and sheep can thrive and be happy are nearly the polar opposite.

Drafts are one thing that neither goats nor sheep handle well, so getting ready for winter means providing a good windbreak outside or making sure sheds or barns are free of drafts.

Winter Housing for Goats

Goats do not like extreme temperatures, whether hot or cold. Proper management of your goats will dictate that you have some form of shelter for them. In the summer, a shed, lean-to, or barn will give them relief from the hot summer sun, and in the winter, it will keep them out of freezing rain, snow, and sub-freezing weather. The difference between summer and winter housing for goats is the amount of insulation from drafts required.

Most breeds of goats will grow a heavier coat during the winter months. That helps keep them warm, but it is not good insulation from freezing rain, snow or strong winds. Insulation isn’t specifically necessary for goats during the winter months, but adding an extra layer of plywood to lean-tos or sheds and barns can dramatically reduce drafts.

Make sure you never over-seal an animal enclosure. Proper ventilation is vital to avoid a buildup of ammonia from urine. Keep your housing areas cleaned regularly during winter months, and check on the overall condition of your goats daily. If you see any goat shivering, or if their lips are gray or bluish, you can cover them with specially made goat blankets to help beat the cold temperatures. Normally, a healthy adult goat can maintain their body temperatures even in the coldest winter months as long as they have adequate shelter.

Younger kids born late in the year may have more trouble staying warm, and blankets help them regulate their body heat better. Kids born very late in the winter or early in the spring also need extra help staying warm because newborns cannot regulate their body temperature at all for several weeks.

Extra bedding will help goats hunker down during the cold months and is also helpful to insulate young kids. Heat lamps should be used very carefully and sparingly. In the case of winter kiddings, a separate box with a heat lamp where young newborns can be kept when not feeding is better than trying to heat the whole shed where bedding can overheat and catch fire.

Winter Housing for Sheep

Sheep should always have access to some form of shelter at all times during the year. However, under normal situations, sheep can handle cold weather and the elements much better than goats. In fact, they often seem to prefer being outside even in the worst winter weather as long as they have protection from drafts.

I often observed my flock huddled behind a tree line, blocked from all wind with ice covering their wool in a thin film or snow piled up on their backs. The heavy wool coat with oily fleece is excellent water protection, and it keeps them well insulated naturally.

The exceptions to this are hair sheep or wooly sheep sheared late in the year. Shearing is best done in the spring so there is adequate time for a buildup of wool on your animals prior to cold weather hitting. As long as your wool sheep have a way to stay out of the sharp cold wind, they will be very happy.

In order to provide a natural windbreak, you will need to start well in advance, maybe even years before you bring your sheep home. Bushes and trees take several years to thicken and provide adequate windbreaks. However, you can provide temporary windbreaks until those bushes and trees mature with a solid wood, brick, or plastic fence. If you prefer to use fences instead of trees and brush for a permanent windbreak, brick or plastic fences will last longer. However, wood is usually cheaper and easier to erect.

If you use wood wind barriers, check it regularly for signs of wear and tear. Nature itself is hard on wood fences, but the sheep can cause a lot of damage by chewing on it or rubbing against it, and overtime they can cause it to deteriorate.

Keep a close eye on the health of your sheep to be sure they are healthy. As long as they are breathing normally, their eyes are bright, and they are walking around, it’s a good idea to let them enjoy the outdoors even during the winter. Fresh air is always better than enclosed sheds or barns.

If you can’t manage to build any form of windbreak or you have a sick animal, you may have to force them to endure being cooped up in a shed or barn. Newborn sheep have the same problems newborn goats have in cold months. While healthy adult sheep can handle extremes in temperatures and exposure to the elements, lambs cannot. Follow the same procedures for newborn lambs that are outlined above for goat kids.

Breaking Water

In the winter water doesn’t flow—it breaks. When temperatures dip below freezing, water freezes up quickly. Breaking ice and providing fresh water are the biggest chores in the winter months for both sheep and goat owners. Electric heaters in troughs or buckets are a huge help. However, if you do not have electricity or don’t want the added cost of electric heaters, be sure to change the water in buckets at least three times a day to avoid freezing and break up any ice that does accumulate.

Water Consumption in the Cold

Goats and sheep both can get off their drinking habits during extreme cold weather. They may not be getting enough fluids to maintain health. Adding a cup or two of Gatorade to a bucket of water helps entice both goats and sheep to drink more and also provides additional electrolytes to help them through cold weather.

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