How cold is too cold for a goat? Temperature can be the least of challenges when determining how to keep goats warm in cold weather.
I’ve lived in cold climates for most of my life, but in 2017, my first season kidding in weather 20 below zero, I learned: don’t cry until you get inside. Otherwise, tears freeze to your face. Chapping adds to the insult and heals slowly. I also learned that goats don’t cry. They didn’t seem to care about winter challenges.
We raise Kiko goats in North Central Idaho. For us it is rare to have an extreme winter, but not uncommon to have a month below zero. I am not nearly as hardy as my goats in cold climates.
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Denise Wilhelm and her husband moved from New Mexico to Delta, Alaska, with extremes of -45F to -68F. She and her herd see a hard freeze every month of the year and winters can last from September until May. “Milking goats outside when it is 20 below, my hands start to freeze after the second goat. You can’t wear gloves and milk. You know that little space between the doe’s thigh and the udder? That’s the warmest spot … put your hand there … makes them jump a little, but keeps you going. The upside? You don’t have to worry about chilling the milk.”
Herdsmen raising goats in cold climates are a rare breed. Pipes freeze, batteries and barn cameras only operate at certain temperatures, snow drifts and ice forms on paths between hourly barn checks, and power can be sporadic. But we persevere to prevent freezing goats.
Tina Starr Judd operates Summer Starr Farm in Wasilla, Alaska where temperatures generally hover around -10 to 0F in the winter. It is considered the “banana belt” of Alaska. She has a streamlined operation with an insulated barn. Her herd of dairy Nubians do so well that Tina finds goat-keeping simple. However, after 49 years there, she still says, “I hate the cold. I whine when it is cold.”
How do we do it? Layers, beginning with short-sleeved shirts in case we need bare arms for birthing procedures. Then waterproof ski pants, wool socks, insulated neoprene boots with additional insoles, hats, and thin gloves because thick gloves offer no dexterity.
Preseason Secrets of How to Keep Goats Warm in Cold Weather:
In order to thrive in cold climates, an animal must acclimate. Goats with a thick undercoat, called cashmere, are suited to cold. Herdsmen have learned that many warm climate breeds can be bred to grow cashmere. For a goat to grow an undercoat, it must be allowed to experience changing temperatures. Shivering is expected while an animal acclimates.
A goat with a well-developed undercoat can stand outside while it is snowing and not be cold. A layer of snow accumulating on a goat’s back is a good sign! Heat is trapped under the hair without melting the snow. Goats also lift hair at the follicle to trap air and stay warm. Cold-climate herdsmen manage the development of the cashmere and decide if artificial coats are needed. Coats compress hair and can be counterproductive to the goat’s natural response to cold temperatures.
Denise and Tina find that selecting not just for dairy traits, but winter cashmere, has helped with Nubians — a breed not known for cold tolerance. Neither use artificial coats as a general practice, but Denise will coat a new animal for a few days as it acclimates, or if it is ill. Winter kids are coated for the first 24 hours. The goal is to remove the coat as soon as possible. “Our first year, we coated everyone, but learned it was more for us than them.”
It takes the right nutritional combination to grow a winter coat and maintain heat in cold weather. High fiber, in the form of hay for goats, provides a constant source of rumination to generate heat. But a constant supply of hay may be insufficient. With pregnant does, developing kids can limit rumen capacity, making it challenging for her to consume enough feed to compensate for the kids and the cold. Does must be monitored for symptoms of ketosis, a life-threatening metabolic condition resulting from an inability to consume enough calories. Freshening can further exacerbate the doe’s condition, requiring additional calories. Tina cautions that, if a freshening doe is shivering, she should not be milked. “She will crash, and hypothermia will result.” She suggests coating does and stabilizing them nutritionally before making further demands on their bodies.
In 2017, we opted to dry off several does and bottle feed their kids with replacer, allowing the does to recover their condition rather than putting them at further risk from the demands of lactation. Neither the does, nor us, were prepared for an unseasonable cold.
Providing enough calories to grow, stave off metabolic illness, prevent obesity from reduced movement, and still generate enough hunger to encourage fiber intake is no small task. Denise offers concentrates to small kids and does in milk to maintain/gain weight. If not bred or milking, they go without.
Water is essential to rumination. Without water, goats will not eat. Sometimes it is so cold that the only option is hand-carrying buckets — which is how Denise waters 30 goats through the seemingly endless winter.
Goats can show deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins after three months on a hay-only diet. In parts of Alaska, the sun barely gets above the horizon, so at best there are four to five hours of twilight. For Denise, this manifests as skin issues and, in extreme cases, can result in skeletal deformities. A protocol of A&D injections becomes part of herd management. For areas deficient in selenium, vitamin E is also required so selenium can be absorbed.
Acclimated goats with good nutrition require little habitation or shelter. The only conditions to mitigate are wind and wetness. Wind can reduce temperatures significantly, calculated as windchill. It also evaporates moisture in the air, leading to dehydration. Wetness compacts the insulating loft of the goat’s hair, leaving them vulnerable to cold. While goats must have protection from adverse weather, their shelter cannot be airtight or significantly warmer than the conditions outside. There must be at least two doors so animals do not become trapped and crush or suffocate one another.
Goats need bedding that allows them to stay warm and dry. Denise gives her goats free access to the barn, one big room with a corner pen for isolation if needed, which usually stays above 0 degrees F. Denise uses the deep litter method, a favorite in extreme climates, as it creates reliable heat at the base layer through decomposition. Most continue to add bedding throughout the winter to keep the top dry but, because Denise’s winter is so long, she strips six to eight inches off her deep litter floors each week, being careful not to disturb the base layer. When the barn temperature rises above 40F, it is considered too warm and ammonia levels rise from the deep litter. It is critically important to check for ammonia at ground level, because it can cause respiratory distress. Products exist to neutralize ammonia. Barn ventilation is also a key component when using this method.
Tina’s insulated barn has a vapor barrier and is not heated, with the exception of a kidding stall when needed. She uses wood shavings and straw, on stall mats over a gravel base, which are cleaned weekly. The cost of bedding in winter is astronomical, but deep litter would produce more ammonia than her barn can release. She has box stalls for newborns with insulated ceilings, floors, and sidewalls. A radiant heater can be adjusted to control temperatures.
Heat lamps are rarely used because of fire hazard and if power goes out, the temperature will drop rapidly without giving the animals time to acclimate.
But heat lamps usually aren’t necessary. Liza Reeves de Ramos lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. “The coldest temp we’ve seen with our goats was -40F. We brought the chickens into the garage, but the goats were perfectly happy where they were. They didn’t want to come in. Once, when it was super cold, we put a heat lamp in the barn and locked them in. They hated it. They knocked a hole in the wall so they could get out.”
-23F – Are You Kidding?
Yes, actually, we are. Many shows require a winter born kid, so while the conditions are less than desirable, herdsmen must make accommodations for the market.
In very cold climates, many breeders will hand-breed does so they have exact kidding dates and can be present for delivery to protect the kid from freezing at birth. Regular barn checks during the kidding season are the norm. While many does can manage a single birth, assistance is required for multiples.
Some breeders (myself included) are adamant about not kidding in winter. Others breed for early winter kids, so the does are not nutritionally impacted by the cold, and the kids have a chance to acclimate before deep winter arrives. Tina prefers to kid in winter, because it is too nice in the summer, and she can’t go fishing when she is bottle-feeding.
Successful herdsmanship in the coldest climates is possible — acclimation, nutrition, and habitation — preparing and selecting ahead of the season is our secret of how to keep goats warm in cold weather.
Karen and her husband Dale raise Kiko goats on Kopf Canyon Ranch, home of Larry the Wonder Goat, in North Central Idaho. They love goating anywhere together, and helping others goat in cold climates.