Winter in Alberta is a different experience every year. Alberta farmers are used to the unpredictable winter weather conditions and begin to prepare well in advance. When it comes to animal care, preparations must also be made.
This winter will be the first for many that entered the industry this year (lots of new small chicken flocks this year!) and for new backyard livestock producers. We welcome these newcomers and offer the following advice on caring for livestock throughout the Alberta winter.
Animals need to be in good condition going into winter. An animal’s thermoneutral zone is a range of temperatures under which an animal does not need to extra energy to maintain their body temperature. As temperatures drop within that zone, animals still do not need to spend more energy but may seek shelter or grow a winter coat to cope. Once temperatures go even lower towards the lower limit of the thermoneutral zone, the animal begins to experience cold stress and the animal needs to increase their metabolic rate to create more body heat. When temperatures fall even further the animals are further stressed and their bodies must work even harder to maintain their body temperature. If the temperatures are too low or if the animal is unable to meet the body’s demands, then the animal’s body temperature will drop and assistance will be needed.
If the animal is sick or too thin, they may not have the reserves to cope with the cold. A veterinarian can help make a health plan to maintain your animals’ health throughout the winter. Part of this plan may include vaccinations, parasite control, nutrition, housing, and dental care. An animal can have access to all the food needed, but cannot make the most of it if they are unable to eat or process it. Furthermore, the animal cannot utilize food if they can’t reach it, as can be the issue with lame animals.
Feed & Water
As the metabolic needs of an animal increase with dropping temperatures, it is the responsibility of those providing care to supply additional feed. Higher energy feeds are often used in the winter to meet the animals’ changing requirements. If the quality of the feed is too low, the animal will not be able to eat enough to meet its energy needs. Lastly, winters can be very long in Alberta so having a plan in place for late season feeding if spring is delayed is critical.
Water is arguably more important than food. Without water, animals will not eat. Therefore, water is vitally important during the winter to support an animal’s metabolic needs. There are many methods that can be used to ensure that clean palatable water is available at all times, such as heated waterers. Assess what works best for your animals and location.
Some livestock may be able to utilize snow as a water source, but it is not appropriate for all species or locations. The Codes of Practice state which species can consider snow an appropriate source of water. The snow must be clean and accessible. Ice crusted or trampled snow is not useable. Furthermore, animals must eat a large amount of snow to take in enough water to function. Alberta winters are always different and some years may not produce enough snow for animals to use. If you’re considering using snow as a water source for your animals, talk to other farmers, veterinarians, and specialists in your area.
Just like us, animals feel the effect of wind chill. Cold air passing over an animal’s skin draws heat away quickly. Many animals grow a winter coat to protect themselves from the wind. Windbreaks provide much needed shelter from high windchills. This can come in many ways, such as a tree line, fencing, or a shelter structure. Again, you must assess what works best for your location.
An animal’s hair coat cannot offer good protection if it is wet and/or dirty. Shelter to keep the animals dry and bedding to provide a dry place to lay must be maintained throughout the winter. Wet bedding must be removed or additional bedding added to keep the animals clean and dry.
In the case where animals are kept inside throughout the winter, ventilation is very important. Wet animals cannot maintain their body temperatures effectively and are at a higher risk of frostbite. Clean, dry bedding must also be maintained inside to prevent the animals from getting wet and to avoid poor air quality. If your eyes burn when you enter the barn, your ammonia levels are too high. Bedding and ventilation must be assessed.
Above are just some pointers for winter animal care. There are many resources available to producers and backyard livestock producers.
- ALERT Line – The ALERT Line is an anonymous, producer helping producer call line. If you have questions or concerns about animal welfare, including if you need support, call this number: 1-800-506-2273
- AFAC Website – There is information for practically every livestock species raised in Alberta on the AFAC website. Cold stress infographics are available for beef cattle, equines, and pigs with tips on detecting and preventing cold stress.
- Agricultural Fieldman – Alberta is unique in that agricultural fieldmen develop, implement, and control programs set out by the Agricultural Service Board. They may also function as inspectors and regulatory officers. You access the contact information for your local Agricultural Fieldman here.
- Commodity Groups – Almost every livestock species raised in Alberta has a commodity group that supports its industry and offers resources. Commodity groups can be identified under the “Producer Info” tab on the AFAC website.
- Mentorship – Find a mentor in your area that can advise you on caring from your livestock. Mentors may be identified through your Agricultural Fieldman or your commodity group.