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During winter, livestock need a little extra care

It’s minus 2, and I have just finished my evening chores.

Taking care of livestock in subzero temperatures is always a struggle. During the last 33 years, we have cared for our flock of sheep, a pile of horses and, for many years, a dozen cows that we had to feed and water through the winters.

While most livestock are accustomed to living in all kinds of weather, when we confine them in pastures and corrals – where they do not have the freedom to seek their own food, water or shelter – we need to make sure that we provide adequately for their needs, especially during the winter.

Livestock don’t need a fancy shelter, but a place where they can get out of the wind and wet will be important to help them avoid frostbitten ears and excessive heat loss during frigid, windy storms.

The saying that you get what you pay for applies to hay. You don’t need top-priced hay, but you need to make sure the hay you are feeding your livestock has the protein and nutrients that your animals need. Green hay has plenty of vitamin A, and the protein is usually good quality.

Brown or bleached hay is deficient in vitamin A and has denatured protein. Using cheaper, poor quality hay does not normally save you much money because it will take more of it to meet the animals’ needs than higher quality hay.

People often think that livestock needs extra grain when the weather is cold. However, it’s the fermentation of the hay’s fiber in their stomachs that creates body heat while also releasing energy. A full stomach through the night will do more to keep them warm than extra grain.

One of the most important considerations for winter livestock care is adequate water. Water is essential for digestion, which then produces heat as it breaks down the hay’s fiber. Do not assume that your livestock can fulfill its water needs by eating snow. It takes a large amount of the animals’ energy to melt enough snow to meet their water needs.

After 30 years of chopping ice in water tanks, my daughter, Cassie, bought me a heated, automatic-watering device. (For several years, I had told her I did not want one.) Then when Pam, my wife, and I were gone for a weekend, she installed it.

Of all the things that have changed through the years, this is one of the most welcome. I have found the energy use to be very minimal, and it’s wonderful the sheep and lambs, barn cat and Bess, our livestock guard dog, all have access to clean, ice-free water year-round.

With a bit more than a week until winter begins, now is a good time to think about what your livestock will need to be healthy through the upcoming winter. It’s time to slip on the coveralls and take care of you livestock’s winter needs.

Doug Ramsey has farmed in La Plata County for more than 35 years. He can be reached at 385-4375.

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