Winter Management Tips for Sheep and Goats

Michael Metzger, Michigan State University Extension Educator
(Previously published on MSU Extension, Sheep & Goat: December 14, 2018 and December 19, 2018)

As cold weather approaches, it is important to consider the comfort of the sheep and goats we care for.

Winter can be a stressful time for livestock. As owners, we need to help to reduce that stress by providing proper care, feeding, and management practices. Adjusting management practices will help to ensure that sheep under your care will thrive through the cold winter months.

Sheep should be given some kind of shelter even if it is just a tree line or wind block. Shelters can include barns or three sided shed. Shelters should have adequate ventilation so that moisture does not build up and cause respiratory problems for the sheep. Hair sheep and wool breeds that have been recently shorn require more shelter than animals with longer wool. Ewes that are lambing during the cold winter months should be housed in a barn and check regularly. Newborns must be dried quickly after birth as hypothermia can set in quickly. Avoid damp, dark, or drafty barns, and wet muddy areas in or around buildings. Young lambs are able to withstand cold temperatures quite well, but drafts and dampness can lead to losses from baby lamb pneumonia. Heat lamps can be used to help keep lambs warm, although care must be taken to prevent electrocutions and/or barn fires.

Sheep require more energy in the winter to help them maintain body temperature. The highest quality hay should not be fed during gestation. Utilize average to good-quality hay during the early gestation period, when ewe nutrient requirements are low compared to late gestation and lactation. If high-quality hay, such as alfalfa, are fed during gestation it is important to limit intakes as overfeeding is costly. Ewes up through 15 weeks of gestation should receive 4 lbs. of a good quality grass/legume hay daily. In the last 4 weeks of gestation they should  receive 4 lbs. of a good quality grass/legume hay plus 1 lb. of corn [or concentrate] daily. To prevent wool picking and other problems, ewes should receive a minimum of 1.5 lbs. of hay per day and one lb. of corn can be substituted for 2 lbs. of hay. Once ewes lamb and begin to lactate, they should receive 5 lbs. of good quality hay and 2 lbs. of 15% crude protein grain mix a day. Hay should be fed in feeders to help minimize waste and help prevent the spread of disease. Sheep should have access to fresh water at all times. This may require changing water a couple of times a day to remove the ice or some other type of heated waterer. Michigan State University reminds producers to use caution with any type of electrical device with sheep and lambs may chew the cord. Salt and minerals formulated for sheep should also be available at all times.

Goats do not require elaborate housing during the winter months. The most important issues regarding housing is to block the harsh, cold north wind and to keep the animals dry. Goats that are properly cared for will have a thick coat of hair helping them to survive the winter with minimal housing. A three sided structure with the opening facing the south provides protection from the cold wind and yet allow plenty of ventilation to keep moisture down in the barn or shed. Make sure there is plenty of clean, dry bedding available. Goats kidding in the cold weather will require more shelter because young kids will not be able to maintain their body temperature outside. A heat lamp may be required in these situations but should only be used with extreme caution because of the risk of barn fires or animals chewing electric cords.

Feeding and watering goats in the winter requires a little more planning than during the warmer summer months. Goats should have access to fresh water at all times. This may require changing water a couple of times a day to remove the ice or some other type of heated waterer. Use caution with any type of electrical device with goats as they may chew the cord. During the winter, goats need more energy to help maintain body temperature. They will also need roughage which can be supplied in grass, alfalfa, or mixed hay. Alfalfa hay can be a great source of both energy and protein, although care should be taken when feeding bucks and wethers because of urinary calculi. Salt and minerals should also be available.

Lice are more prevalent on goats during the winter months. They can be irritating to the goat and in some cases, heavy infestations can cause anemia, poor coat and/or skin quality. Michigan State University Extension recommends working with your veterinarian to develop a treatment plan for you goat herd to control lice and other parasites.

Keeping a herd of goats, or even a couple of animals as companions, can be a rewarding experience. With a little preplanning we can help our animals not only survive, but thrive the cold winter months.