Getting Livestock Farms Ready for Winter

Author: Dr.Susan Kerr, WSU Klickitat County Extension Director

Publish Date: Fall 2010

When you find yourself with a few spare moments this autumn, use this article as a guide to think about all the odds-and-ends tasks needed to get your farm and livestock ready for winter. Most of these tasks are much more enjoyable during sunny 60-degree weather than during the snowy, blowy, single-digit- degree days ahead.


Good fences make good neighbors--they keep animals safe and where they need to be. Check fence posts for frost heave, breaks and other damage; stabilize them now to avoid 3 AM calls about livestock at large. Walk your entire fenceline and look for down wire, grounded-out areas, weed overgrowth, troublesome treelimbs and other potential problems. If you post your property against trespassing or hunting, make sure signs are visible and numerous.


Fall is an excellent time to perform essential pasture management tasks. Mowing mature plants will encourage late season growth of grasses, strengthening roots and nutrient supplies that will be needed in early spring. Harrowing will distribute manure nutrients; it also makes parasites more susceptible to sun and freezing temperatures. Weed control, either through grazing or chemical means, is worthwhile in the fall to reduce the number of annual weed seeds available in the spring and to reduce perennial weeds.

Soil Testing

Soil testing is performed to learn if nutrients or soil amendments should be applied to achieve optimum production from land. Some nutrients such as nitrogen should only be applied when plants are actively growing so harmful runoff of excess nitrogen can be avoided. Pasture plants will still actively grow in September and October and, depending on moisture and temperature, perhaps even into November. However, after plants become dormant, nitrogen fertilizers should not be applied until plants emerge from dormancy next spring. Fall is a good time to apply lime if soil pH is too low, however; lime takes a long time to move through the soil profile and modify soil pH. Lime applied to acid soil in the fall will raise the pH to proper levels by spring. Soils in our area tend to be neutral or slightly basic, so lime may not even be indicated.


Which would you rather do, a critical assessment of your water lines on a sunny fall afternoon or emergency patching at 1 AM on a freezing winter night? That’s a no-brainer! Evaluate the ability of all components of your livestock watering system to withstand the coldest possible temperatures experienced in your area. For most of us, this will be -20°F; for others, it could be as low as -40°F. Pay particular attention to any sections that have been trouble in the past. Insulate pipes and consider

installing frost-free faucets. Be sure to have a system that allows livestock access to unfrozen water 24/7- -having to chop ice for water access makes livestock rely on you and your schedule, not their needs. Have emergency supplies such as hair dryers and heat tape on hand for pipe thawing, but always use such items with direct supervision.

Develop a plan for livestock watering in the event of frozen pipes. Consider leaving faucets dripping during cold snaps. Know how to turn off the water if pipes break.

Hay and Feed

If you have storage room, it is usually more economical to purchase a winter’s worth of hay at one time. It can be difficult to find the type of hay you want in late winter and the cost can rise, depending on supply and demand. To know how much to purchase, you need to know livestock body weights, nutritional needs and average dry matter consumption. The numbers shown here are just guidelines; individual animal’s needs may be higher or lower depending on issues such as shelter, health, work, body condition, age, pregnancy and many others.

Species Dry matter intake as % of body weight
Beef cattle 1.5-3
Dairy cattle 2-3
Horse 1.5
Swine Ad lib (growing)
Sheep 2-5
Goat 2-5


Calculate the pounds of hay needed per animal per day and multiply by the number of days to be fed during the winter, then by the number of animals of that class to be fed. In some areas, hay will only need to be fed for a few months; for others, hay may need to be fed nearly year-round. Although it is good to purchase too much instead of too little hay, try not to have great quantities of hay left over because the new year’s crop will usually have higher protein and vitamin content than last year’s stored hay. Feed (grain concentrates) are also more economical when bought in bulk, but storage can be an issue. Keep stored feed dry, cool and protected from vermin. It should be well ventilated to prevent mold development. Again, calculate the amount needed per animal per day and multiply by the numbers of feeding days and head fed to determine amounts to purchase.

During cold weather, animals’ maintenance nutritional requirements can increase substantially. Although roughage generates greater heat of digestion, there are limits to the physical capacity of animals’ digestive tracts that limit their ability to meet increased needs through more roughage; in these cases, high energy concentrates should be slowly added to the ration for more calories during cold snaps. For some species (horses, goats), it is practical to use blankets to help keep animals warm.


Late summer is the time to do breeding soundness examinations (BSE) on fall-breeding species such as sheep and goats. Optimally, these examinations should be done 60 days before breeding starts so there is time to develop Plan B if a breeding ram or buck is found to be sterile or have sub-fertile. BSEs include physical examination, assessment of libido and semen analysis. If problems are found, sometimes improved nutrition or other treatment can bring scores up to acceptable levels. Always buy disease-free breeding males from reputable sources who will replace the animals and/or your money should the animal prove sub-fertile. Also always quarantine additions in isolation downwind and downstream from the herd for at least 30 days; feed and handle them after the rest of the herd.


Fall is a good time to cull animals from herds. Review your records to see which dams needed help birthing, which got through the fence most often, which had repeated health issues, which had attitude problems and cull as needed to make your life easier. Conduct pregnancy checks if possible so you can cull and not feed open animals through the winter.

Mud Control

Your farm may be dry now, but remember slogging through all that mud last winter? Work with your local soil and water conservation district to control runoff, mud and waste water. Cost-share programs are often available. Adding gutters, sacrifice areas, geotextiles, gravel and tiles and revising livestock traffic flow can help reduce and control mud on your farm. Mud control in sacrifice areas used for prolonged feeding periods through the winter is essential--mud is not healthy for livestock or the environment.


While you are spending more time inside, spend some time with your records; you and your accountant will be glad you did. Update animal health records, organize receipts, list expenses, and summarize revenue to date and so on. Evaluate herd genetic progress and plan future breedings. Look for ways to reduce expenses and consider alternative marketing times, methods or channels.


To prepare animals for the stress of winter, review vaccination and deworming programs with your veterinarian. Assess and record body condition scores of as many individuals as possible; re-assess at least monthly through the winter, grouping and feeding animals as needed to maintain healthy body condition. Remember, body condition scoring is a hands-on activity; it can’t be done from afar, especially on animals with deceptively thick winter coats.


Be sure ventilation is adequate if animals are housed so air is always fresh but no drafts exist. Also make sure shelters are safe and sturdy and will protect livestock from wind and precipitation. Make provisions for bedding so animals will stay clean and dry. Check the roof for leaks and repair as needed. Remove tree branches that may damage the shelter. Make sure electric wiring is up to code. Use extra caution when using heat lamps—do not allow them to contact anything, especially wooden walls or bedding.


Finally, are you ready for an emergency on your farm? Flashlights, fire extinguishers, generators, first aid kits (both human and livestock), emergency numbers, signage and blankets are just a few of the items to have on hand to help see you through an emergency on your farm. Think through and develop a written plan of what you would do in the event of fire, flood, ice storm, prolonged deep freeze, wind storm or power outage. If you have four-footed animals depending on you, forewarned is indeed forearmed.

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