4-H Specialist Reminds Iowans to be Vigilant About Animal Care in Cold Weather

Advice on caring for animals when the temperature drops

January 17, 2024, 10:02 am | Amy Powell

AMES, Iowa – With more bitter cold days in the forecast, livestock and pet owners need to be vigilant about the care they give to outdoor animals.

While many hobby farm animals in Iowa are well acclimated to lower temperatures, a few basic considerations can keep livestock healthy and comfortable throughout the winter months, according to Amy Powell, 4-H specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

A key part of managing any animal’s health is, first and foremost, establishing a good relationship with a veterinarian. While general resources can provide a good starting point, veterinarians can provide more specific recommendations based on an individual animal’s needs.

“It’s always important to have a relationship with a veterinarian, whether you have a cat or a pig,” said Powell.

According to Powell, another important consideration for any animal is water availability.

“The biggest concern to keep in mind is making sure that your water doesn’t freeze,” she said. “However, sometimes animals won’t drink water that’s too warm, so it’s important to find that balance.”

“An electric water heater can be a good solution; you just want to make sure it doesn’t get too hot or short out,” she said.

For more specific guidelines, including species-specific daily water consumption ranges, visit the ISU Extension and Outreach publication Watering Systems for Grazing Livestock.

Nutritional needs

“Nutrition is also important when temperatures drop,” continued Powell. “At low temperatures, livestock animals are using a lot more energy to keep warm, so it’s important to up nutrition availability, whether that’s through higher quality hay or giving them more grain, or whatever that animal eats.”

As far as exposure to the elements, many livestock animals in Iowa are well acclimated to the cold and can tolerate low temperatures so long as they are provided with adequate water and nutrition.

“Since most animals are outside all the time, they have a thick winter coat,” explained Powell. “As long as they have been outside and are acclimated to being outside, they can survive in pretty cold temperatures.”

For additional shelter from the elements, Powell recommends providing a windbreak for pasture animals.

Caring for the Young

Despite these adaptations, it’s important to provide additional consideration for young animals, which are smaller and more susceptible to temperature injury.

“If an animal is getting ready to hatch or give birth, then you want to make sure that the birth or hatching takes place somewhere warm,” she advised. “If Goat looking over fence in the snow.temperatures are at or below freezing, and the mother doesn’t get the baby cleaned off quickly enough, the baby can freeze to death.”

When determining if livestock animals are experiencing temperature discomfort, Powell said to observe the behavior of the animal.

“When chickens and pigs get cold, they will huddle together. If you see a big pile of chickens or pigs, they may be too cold,” she said. “Sheep and cattle, and especially young lambs and calves, will shiver and hunch up if they get too cold.”

“If you’re concerned, you can always take their body temperature to check if they’re going into hypothermia,” she added. “If an animal is experiencing temperature discomfort, the first thing you want to do is contact your vet. Then, you want to warm them up slowly. Don’t submerge them in hot water, because if you heat them up too quickly, that can lead to other issues.”

Shareable photo: Goat looking over a snow-covered fence.

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