During this time of year, we know cold temperatures are inevitable. Extreme cold weather in the northern half of the state can have a detrimental effect on small animal production if there are newborn and very young goats, sheep, rabbits and poultry present. When temperatures drop near or below freezing, these young animals are very vulnerable to hypothermia and can expire. Add in lack of protection from wind, moisture or the cold ground, and conditions are not favorable for survival of newborn and young animals. They are not able to generate sufficient body heat and/or do not have adequate fur or feathers to survive; therefore they need human assistance.
Some simple practices include:
- Housing with at least a roof and three walls,
- Securing animals in barns during nights when temperatures are near or below freezing,
- Size-appropriate wooden boxes or plastic barrels with hay for insulation,
- Putting young with their mother in pens with plenty of hay on the floor,
- Confinement within solid walls or taut tarps to block wind and precipitation, and
- Well-secured and protected heat lamps in extreme situations.
Each farm situation and resources will vary; it is up to each farmer to be innovative and apply what is necessary.
Wooden boxes or plastic barrels to protect newborn and young animals from hypothermia: The boxes need to have a roof or lid, at least three sides and a fourth side with a sufficient-size opening for animals to enter and exit. While a wooden floor can be utilized, it may not allow for drainage (when animals urinate) and, if the floor and animals become wet, the young may become chilled. Try to set and protect the box so larger animals do not climb on the box and startle young animals inside. When using a plastic barrel, it can be stood on end or side and stabilized/secured to avoid rolling or falling over with young animals trapped inside. When stood on end, a hole can be cut along the lower side at the base; when set on the side, a hole can be cut at one end. A plastic barrel will also hold moisture; therefore, it needs to be cleaned as situations warrant.
Regarding use of heat lamps: Trying to protect newborn and young animals from inclement weather is the humane thing to do. And, when using heat lamps, it is imperative to practice farm safety by avoiding the risk of barn fires. Make sure to secure heat lamps so they do not swing in the wind or when curious animals try and paw at them. Make sure bulbs have wire frames and adequate distance so they do not come in contact with walls, structures or hay; this applies to situations with wood, hay or plastic.
Water containers: Those of us who have raised rabbits know about swapping water bottles before they freeze. Water access is essential to keep animals hydrated even in coldest of times. Water lines and nipples will freeze when water inside them drops below freezing. In situations with poultry, water containers should be exchanged as needed (remove them into a warm building during night, replace in morning). There are waterers with a heating element and electrical cord to keep water from freezing. In situations with goats or sheep, the farmer can choose to frequently break ice or use floating heating elements in water troughs. There are also some non-floating heating elements that sit on the bottom of troughs. When using any of these de-icers, make sure they are appropriate for plastic or metal water troughs.
Even in the southern half of the state, hypothermia can be a problem during subfreezing temperatures and inclement weather. However, below-freezing temperatures are not likely to last for more than a few days. The aforementioned practices can be applied and are equally as effective. Be practical, use some commonsense and keep practices affordable.
Robert Spencer is an Urban Regional Extension Specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.