5 Things to Keep Your Critters Warm in Winter...

It was 8ºF at the farm this morning.  I don't think that I need to tell you that is cold, certainly not as cold as other places, but it really can be a challenge to keep all the outside animals warm and healthy when the temperatures drop so low.  There are a few things that we do to help the animals stay toasty.

1.  SHELTER.  Make sure that your outside animals have a dry place for when the storms are raging.  This is huge.  If animals can stay dry, they stay so much warmer.  Our chickens have the barn of barns, the rabbits have their hutches, but the horse is not so lucky.  We are saving up to build him a barn (barns are expensive!), for now he has a temporary shelter.  We made him a large dry area by spanning his run with 2 x 4's and covering them with plywood and tarps.  He is able to stay out of the weather, and to make it all a little more cozy, he has a lean-to to bed down in and to protect him from the wind and weather.

2.  BEDDING or LITTER.  Bedding is very important, maybe not so much with horses and large animals, but with chickens, this is what makes a difference.  The floor of the coop is covered with straw about 2- to 3-inches deep.  That straw or litter that you put down helps trap warm air when the animals nestle down in it.  It is a must for cold weather.  You can use whatever litter you are accustomed to, we just like straw because it breaks down easily and we can use it as compost on the farm when we clean out the coop.  We don't get too clean happy in the winter, either.  We clean up the obvious piles of chicken poop, but what we don't gather stays.  This sounds just a little gross, but it has made all the difference, poop in the coop keeps it warmer.  In fact, it can raise the temperature by 10ºF in some situations.  I am not advocating filthy coops, we don't leave it in piles or anything, it's just that we don't scrape everything up.  Walking into the coop, you really wouldn't notice, but anything that can keep tender chicken toes from being frost bit in extreme temperatures is good practice in my book!

The horse and rabbits all have piles of straw in their bedding areas, as mentioned before, it traps heat in the little air pockets in the straw and helps keep them warm.  I don't think you can give them too much bedding.  We have one rabbit who builds a nest with a hole that he can jump in and out of, I pack his bedding area chuck full of straw, he builds his hut and stays super toasty.

3.  GROUPING.  Birds of a feather flock together, right?  Actually grouping your animals can make a huge difference.  In Cluckingham Palace, we have a nesting area that can be closed at night.  When the sun starts to set, we gather up the girls and pile them in the nesting area.  We close the big double doors and let them nest close together for the night.  The normal body temperature for a chicken is 102-103ºF.  The closer they nest, the easier it is for them to maintain that temperature.  Rabbits can be a challenge. Unless you have all the same sex or spayed/neutered rabbits, I would suggest keeping them separate, unless you want piles of baby bunnies (which can be really difficult to find homes for - trust me on this one!).

4.  FEED.  Good feed in adequate amounts is a must.  I always bump up the amount of feed the animals get in the winter, it takes energy to stay warm, so a little extra food goes a long way.  I have friends that grain their horses in the winter, mine doesn't do well on grain, he gets arthritic and has trouble moving, so I give him extra grass hay and alfalfa hay.  Plus, he gets squash, apples, carrots - fruits and veggies that have a higher sugar content to keep him warm and moving.  The chickens get a little extra scratch and for the rabbits we add some grass hay, extra veggies, and apples to their feed.  I get sick when I see skinny horses and cows that are expected to battle the cold and stay alive and healthy.  I am not one that likes to see animals stressed in any way.  If you can't feed them, do something so that someone can help you, or take them to the Humane Society, it's better for them to be there than to starve through the winter.

5.  WATER.  Just like feed, water is so important.  Horses do better with warmer water, we put a water heater in the water trough to keep the temperature of the water up (It cost around $80 for the heater and a trough).  It keeps Cory drinking and makes it so we don't have to break ice every morning.  Colic is a very real fear for those of us with horses.  Freezing cold water does not entice a horse to drink, and the risk of colic becomes quite high.  The cost to for a vet is significantly higher than setting up a heater in the water!

The chickens water has to be brought in at night or it will freeze and never unthaw.  We make sure they all have plenty of fresh and clean water so they can digest their food and stay healthy.

There are several other little things that you can do to help keep your animals warm.  It comes down to spending time with them and assessing their needs.  Make sure that you do your part as a responsible animal owner to keep your friends toasty and healthy during these cold months.  All too often I hear stories of chickens with frost bite on their toes and combs, or horses that were starved through the winter.  These stories are heartbreaking and completely preventable if people will just take a little time to help their animal companions.  Love your animals, they will love you back ten times more!  Trust me, it's worth the time and effort you put into it.


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