It’s no secret that winter in Maine is cold. It can be hard to make it through the winter as a human being, but imagine being an animal spending all your time outdoors in the cold.
Luckily for farmers and animals alike, most livestock are fairly hardy to winter weather. Some types of livestock, however, are more hardy than others.
Donna Coffin, extension professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that the breeds promoted as winter hardy easily build up fat, have a hair coat and can make it through the winter without losing as much weight as other livestock breeds.
“A downside of more winter hardy animals might be that they are not as efficient at feed conversion [the ability to convert feed into weight gain] as other animals,” Coffin added.
Beyond breeds, though, some types of livestock are more resistant to cold than others. Whether you are considering adding livestock to your farm for the first time or hoping to have a slightly easier winter than in years past, here is what you need to know.
Jacki Perkins, organic dairy and livestock specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), said that ruminants are naturally cold-hardy because of the way that their stomachs are designed.
“They have several stomachs, and one acts like a compost pile [that generates heat],” she said. “Goats, cows and sheep in particular of course because they have wool — those are really cold-hardy.”
Goats can be a little more sensitive than their ruminant brethren, though. Perkins said that goats struggle when they get wet in the cold because they don’t carry as much fat on the outside of their bodies. A “goat coat” can help remedy this issue. Also, meat goats tend to be hardier than dairy goats in the winter.
“Dairy goats have a little more trouble with their udders, especially if they’re milking,” Perkins said. “They’re very seasonal [though, so] they should be pregnant through the winter and you shouldn’t worry about milking them.”
When it comes to cows, some breeds have been developed for warm weather, such as the Brahman cow. They might not be the best fit for Maine and other cold places.
Bison are another ruminant that are a great choice for cold. Unlike cows, Perkins said, their feed and water needs do not significantly increase during the winter. However, bison come with their own challenges.
“You have to have some pretty hefty fences,” Perkins said. “They’re like a cross between cows and horses.”
Finally, while alpacas and llamas aren’t true ruminants — they only have three compartments in their stomachs instead of four — they are also naturally cold-hardy.
“Those guys were bred in the Andes,” Perkins said. “They’re happy in the cold.”
Though they do not have the benefit of several stomachs, pigs generally hold up fairly well to the cold.
“That being said, pigs are in more need of protective housing than other livestock like cows, sheep or goats,” Coffin added.
However, Perkins said, most farmers choose not to keep them through the winter.
“That has a lot to do with the fact that in the cold winter months, pigs tend to build fat around their muscles to stay warm — then, when you go to butcher them in the spring, it’s a heavy pig but lots of fat,” Perkins said. “If you want lard for cooking, it’s wonderful. If not, you’re better off raising [pigs] in the summer.”
If you love lard and want to keep pigs through the winter, Perkins said to opt for hairier breeds like Mangalitsa or Tamworth as opposed to the “pink Wilbur kind of pig.”
“A lot of the time the hairier pigs are also better foragers because they’re heritage breeds,” Perkins said.
Rabbits are not only a sustainable, easy-to-raise protein for subsistence farmers, but they are also a great choice for farms in cold areas.
“Rabbits are particularly cold-hardy,” Perkins said. “They carry their fat in a layer under their skin, not in their meat. The colder it gets, the more they [go into] hibernation [and they] won’t eat or drink anything.”
When it comes to specific breeds of rabbits that will thrive in the winter, Perkins said that it is not necessary to choose rabbit breeds that are woolier.
“Pretty much all rabbits do well, and that has to do with their fat structure under their skin,” she said.
When it comes to choosing farm animals for the cold, poultry is a tricky category. For example, certain chickens do better in the cold weather than others.
“There are specific breeds of chickens that you have to watch out for,” Perkins said. “The ones that are cold-hardy have feathers on their feet and small combs on their heads. Big combs get frostbitten. If you have a chicken with a big comb, during the winter, they’re going to need ventilation [to prevent moisture from building up and freezing on their combs].”
Also, Perkins said, the fancier the feathers, the less cold-hardy the bird is.
“Those guys can’t weather changes,” she said. “They need really consistent care.”
Ducks are a little more cold-hardy than chickens.
“Their feathers are waterproof, so they like being outside in the winter,” Perkins said. “I like keeping ducks in the winter because it snows enough that their pen stays cleaner.”
Geese are similarly cold-hardy.
“They’re like ducks that have turned into tanks,” Perkins said. “They’re all kind of happy to be there.”
Guinea fowl may struggle because they have so much dangly skin; their protein requirements will also go up in cold weather, Perkins said. Also, if you are looking for low-maintenance, cold-hardy fowl, turkeys might not be the way to go.
“Turkeys hate the cold,” she said. “They have all that extra skin. They’re so high maintenance, and they’re expensive.”
Winter livestock care
When it comes to choosing breeds, Coffin believes that there are some things that you should weigh heavier than winter hardiness.
“It is more important to choose the breed of livestock for the use or purpose you are going to raise them,” Coffin said. “If you plan to produce a certain type of meat, you should look for the breeds that will provide the most meat.”
Plus, care is as important — if not more important — than livestock selection when it comes to making sure your farm stock makes it through the winter.
“Farm animals can easily survive the winter if they have appropriate housing,” Coffin said.
Coffin also said to make sure your livestock, no matter how cold-hardy they are, have dry bedding in housing with no drafts and adequate ventilation, as well as good quality feed and adequate water ( heat tapes or heated bowls will keep it liquid ) to get through winter with minimum weight loss. Acclimating livestock to cold weather, especially if they are moving to a new climate, is also important.
“Folks that bring in livestock like horses from Florida in the middle of winter need to consider blanketing them or keeping them in a warmer barn since they don’t have the fat cover or hair coat to cope with winter temperatures,” Coffin said. “Once acclimated, as long as their coat stays dry, livestock can take quite a bit of cold weather in stride.”