In Defense of Outwintering Livestock

The frigid temps of Winter arrived early this year. That first morning we woke up to a landscape covered in snow and temps in the teens, we shivered just looking out the window, and only left the house when clad in bulky layers. Our house pets, like us, have not grown a winter coat, and felines and canines alike make only short trips outside, preferring the coziness of a heated space. So it seems logical to project our thinking to farm animals, and imagine their discomfort at being out in the cold.

Beware of this line of thinking though. A concerned animal welfare advocate once suggested to me that livestock should have a heated barn to protect them from our harsh Winters. Let’s examine this idea first from an animal welfare perspective: A heated barn would require the barn to be well sealed up, with low ventilation, in order to be worth heating. This is a recipe for disaster for the animals, as air quality would be very poor (highly humid, with dust from the bedding, and harmful gases from animal waste), leading to increased incidence of pneumonia and respiratory diseases. Now let’s consider it from an economic perspective: The farmers I know want only the best for their stock, and not simply because their livelihood depends on the animals. But farming is a low-margin occupation—especially any kind of livestock farming—and building and then heating a barn is simply not financially feasible.

What about a regular unheated barn then? Sure enough, many farmers keep their animals in a barn throughout the Winter. But there still can be issues affecting animal welfare: if bedding is not added regularly, ammonia can build up in the air of even a well-ventilated barn, causing respiratory issues. If animals are too crowded, they will sometimes fight. And, building a barn large enough to house all your different species of animals (separate from each other, as they don’t all necessarily get along like they do in kids’ books) is a very expensive proposition if you don’t already have one on your property.

Well, a simple shelter then. Yes, animals should definitely have access to some form of shelter. A “living barn” of trees, a 3-sided shed, a hoophouse – any of these would be adequate. It’s not the cold from which livestock need protection. If the animals have been consistently outdoors through the gradually cooling weather of Autumn, they have, like wild animals, grown a warm hair coat (or extra down feathers in the case of poultry). It’s the wind and wet that can negatively affect them; hence access to a windbreak at a minimum is important.

Ruminants—four-stomached animals like sheep, cattle, and goats–have their own built-in furnace. Bacterial activity in their rumen helps keeps them comfortably heated from within, if they are fed properly, at temperatures far below our own comfort level.

Different species have differing cold tolerances, with sheep being the hardiest and poultry and pigs the least hardy, though they can still thrive outdoors with temps into the teens.

In the depths of last Winter’s frigid grip, I peered out the window one morning, concerned how our critters were faring on that sub-zero day. The livestock guardian dog had access to a hoophouse but wasn’t in it, choosing instead to be outdoors romping around. The ducks had also opted out of shelter. This winter, our sheep and cows will be outdoors, with access to a hoophouse. We keep trying to entice them into the hoophouse with treats, but so far they have determined that they are perfectly happy where they are.

 


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