Preparing Goats for Fall and Winter

Preparing Goats for Fall and Winter

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Whether you have a cold hardy breed or not, fall and winter aren’t quite as carefree for our four-legged organic lawn mowers. Preparing goats for fall and winter is of the utmost importance.

by Kathleen Yaga There’s little more adorable than kids wildly dancing sideways happily in the spring or playing king of the mountain during the long summer months. Whether you have a cold hardy breed or not, fall and winter aren’t quite as carefree for our four-legged organic lawn mowers. Steps can and should be taken for making them healthier and more comfortable for the colder climates.

First, their living area has to be prepared and the two biggest issues to consider are: Food and accessibility, both for you and the herd.

As far as living spaces go, I’m a firm believer that if you have harsher winters, a covered but open area is a must. We call ours a “goat veranda.” This allows you to give them an open-air area to move around and be fed in. You won’t be feeding them in their bedding thus attracting hungry vermin and other unwanted visitors. This also allows for access and enrichment for much-needed movement, even in deep snow. If you don’t have the structure established yet, it’s best to have the veranda on the downhill side of the structure so it remains drier.

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Unless you’re experienced with the deep litter method, the bedding should be fully stripped from the bottom of the living structure and a generous layer of zeolite or clinoptilolite sprinkled all over but focused especially on the exterior borders of the structure. Take note of the bugs you see inside as sometimes you can find eggs and stop an infestation before it overwinters. Nice, tight corners and gaps are hot spots and should be paid special attention. Spiders and the like, as long as they’re not harmful, are welcome guests. Add straw liberally after the cleaning. They need a deep bed to snuggle down into during those chilly nights. You will need to keep adding straw throughout the winter as the original bedding will get trampled down and won’t retain heat as well. Consider adding dried herbs under or mixed into the layer of straw. Dried fleabane, marigold petals, and peppermint are a mix we’ve found good success with.

Trio of fleabane, marigold petals, and peppermint.

Make sure the silage, hay, feed, water, and straw are all easily accessible by both you and the animals. Hauling hay and straw to the barn becomes a much more challenging task in chest-deep snow. Double check and make certain your winter stock is free and clear of anything attempting to nest. It should be checked for mold, dampness, and bugs. Utilize traps and good storage methods to prevent issues before they happen. Grain’s especially tempting in the winter, so it should be stored in a sealable and durable container.

Grain storage bin.

Consider a multivitamin or enriched feed, since they won’t have access to the variety of food they typically do in the summer, as well as loose minerals. If you live way off-grid, now’s the time to estimate how much you’ll need to buy and stock up on, especially if you’re at risk of being snowed in for a long while. If plows don’t get to you or you don’t have one, then running out of food is a real threat. A general rule of estimation is making sure you have 3–4% of a single, healthy sized goat’s body weight in pounds of hay for them to eat per day. Depending on how cold it gets, they might eat more if they need more energy to stay warm. They cannot be fed purely on grain; the roughage they get from either silage or hay is vital to their gut health. Other considerations must be taken into account as well, predominantly whether or not your goat is pregnant. Gestation tends to occur over winter, so the nutrient requirement will be increased as well.  Grains — and especially sweet feed — should make up a minimal part of the male goat’s diet during the winter. Male goats who eat a diet rich in grains, especially sweet feed, are more likely to develop blockages in their urinary tract which can be fatal.

Just as important is their access to water. Their water intake will go up since their access to water-rich food will decrease. If your area gets down below freezing, you can float a bottle of salt water in their water vessel. The Salt water doesn’t freeze as quickly, and the natural bobbing movement will prevent ice crystals from forming for at least a few degrees below freezing. As long as they’re in the sun, black buckets work well for retaining heat, as well as stones piled around the bucket to retain warmth. If it gets truly cold, an electric heater can be purchased and placed in the water bucket. Make sure the vessel you have it in will not melt if exposed to the heat. Warmer water also helps them retain body heat.

Your furry friends will take some tending to as well. Nature senses when the season of warmth and plenty is ending. A good spray, rubdown, and brushing with a pyrethrum tea for anything trying to take up residence in that warm fur will help prevent skin troubles, though this should be done on a warm, sunny day. Hooves should also be trimmed to prevent any mud/icy build up on the foot during the slushier days. Try to trim their hooves after they’ve spent a day in a wet pasture, the moisture will soften the hooves and make them easier to clip. Goats will also be getting a thicker coat at this time, so what we like to do is drill stiff bristle brushes on the corners of our barn so they can scratch and rub to their heart’s content while they shed.

As long as you did their needed shots in the spring and they’re designed to be maintained by yearly boosting (CTD, worming for meningeal worm prevention in areas heavily trafficked by deer, etc …) there should be no need to administer vaccinations as long as they are still healthy. Naturally, if your goats do have an obvious health problem, veterinary attention should be given immediately. Fall and winter are harder and more energy demanding seasons for your livestock; most health problems will be exacerbated and made worse during these times.

A happy Oberhalsi grazing.

Autumn also brings falling leaves. While goats are nature’s faithful custodians and I use mine in my garden to help clean up the clutter and cycle nutrients, you should pay careful attention to what they have access to. Rhododendron and anything in that family such as azaleas are extremely toxic to goats and will kill them within a few hours of ingestion. Learn to identify every part of the plant, so that even without leaves, you know to keep your goats away from that area. Freshly fallen wild cherry leaves are toxic as well. The peak of their potential toxicity is the first two days after they have fallen, especially while the rim of the leaf is wilting. It is best to keep goats away from grazing around cherry trees in general since only well-dried, crisp leaves are safe for them to consume (they should crumble in your hand to be considered safe). Cherry pits can be toxic as well. There’s too much risk to make it worth it.

Dangerous wild cherry leaves.

Of all the animals we’ve owned, goats tend to be the easiest to prepare for winter. With a little planning ahead and prep, you can keep them comfortable, warm, and healthy for years to come.

Kathleen Yaga lives in the middle of the woodlands with her family and an ever-changing cast of livestock friends.  If not in front of the stove, you can find her combing through the underbrush for mushrooms, trying to learn to speak chicken, making wild attempts to ascertain new skills, or pursuing esoteric knowledge.

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