Oh my, the cold has really gotten to me this past week. Although I know there is a stretch of cold early in the year, every year, it always seems to catch me off guard...every year. You'd think I'd have learned by now.
Despite my not so being surprised surprise, over the years I've learned a thing or two about living here and cold weather, especially when making sure the animals are okay in it. It can be hard not to over-anthropomorphize them and worry they're cold. Heck, who am I kidding, both Tim and I worry about them when the wind-chill is -35C. The ducks, chickens, and sheep never fails to amaze me though.
Although the barn animals aren't wild, there are similarities to be seen. Like the native wildlife, the sheep, ducks, and chickens can be acclimatized to a certain degree, but not wholly. Its a balance between housing type, housing size, number of animals, wind mitigation, bedding, and attentiveness. It sounds like a lot, and I guess it is. The animals can't verbally tell you if they're okay. I do believe that one can tell if things are good though. Chickens will still be chickens, ducks will still behave like ducks, and sheep, well, they will be sheep. Cold creatures don't behave normally. I know I don't.
Being one of the first domestic animals, domestic sheep have a different yearly rhythm and timeline to it's wild counterparts, although, not by much depending on the breed and age. Having a few breeds and ages enables us to see some incredible variation between breeds. In general, we feed according to the needs of the animals needing the most supplementation during the winter. Better safe than sorry, or, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
I always feel bad for the chickens in winter. It's one of the reasons we reduced our flock so much. The winter began with 10, but we are now down to 8 due to a Sharp-shinned hawk. Chickens originated in the tropics, and while some breeds, like the Rhode island Reds we have, do okay in winter, they would still rather be in warmer weather. So far, even in the coldest weather, the chickens seem to do doing okay. They don't go outside, unless it's above 0C. Inside they maintain their scratching, eating, and searching for interesting things to eat. They get the leftover whey from cheese, bits of bread, cheese, greens, and other kitchen scraps in addition to extra feed. Making sure they always have access to their food is essential. The heated waterer base is a wonderful invention, and give us peace of mind knowing that all the poultry have water, not ice blocks. Putting down a layer of fresh straw regularly gives a layer of insulation between the cold ground and chicken feet. More straw was put down for the recent cold snaps, just to be sure. We're still getting eggs, and the chickens are still doing their thing. So far, so good.
Ducks are amazing. Dirty, but amazing. Every morning, no matter how cold it is, they and the geese, all trundle out to play in their freshly filled warm water pond, clean themselves, have a rest on their self made "iceflow" for a few hours, then go back into the duckhouse to sit, eat, and chat to each other some more. The cold barley seems to phase them. It's astounding. They may not love the cold, but they certainly don't seem to mind it. Even at -20C and a -35C wind chill, they will come out and play. It's only at those temperatures that they go straight back inside after bathing. The duck house could be more accurately called the poultry house as both the ducks and chickens live in it, oh yeas, and the geese too. In the past we had their ponds inside the house, but it just got too messy and ice covered so we kept the ponds outside, keeping only the heated waterer inside. This is a much cleaner and easier to manage arrangement. As long as the ducks have a place to blow out their nostrils, they are good. To keep everyone happy and avoiding fighting between the duck "tribes" there are lots of "rooms" they can flee to if needed. Yes, there is a whole world of ducky drama that I will never understand, but I can see it. This one is after that one, but that one like a third one, it's like one big duck high school drama. It makes sense that ducks aren't often thought of as violent creatures, but they can be. Having different rooms is a way to keep all the ducks safe from each other preventing unwanted injury or at worst death. I know, I'd have never thought ducks were that mean either, go figure. Anyway, the ducks are waddling along and around through winter. Many in the flock are getting old, hence the fewer eggs. The 2021 ducklings should begin laying in the spring, so we'll have some more duck eggs. For now though, they are enjoying being ducks!
Both the chickens and ducks decide when it's time to go in and have the door closed to prevent the wind coming in. Often in the early afternoon of the coldest days the ducks go in. That's our cue to go down to their house, check feed and water, refill if necessary, and make sure they are good for the rest of the afternoon, each time looking out for anyone that looks possibly a bit cold. If that happens, more straw, windblocks, and warm water is given to warm them up. If need be, a heat lamp is set up, but so far the poultry hasn't needed it this year.
Shearing happened later in 2021 than we would normally do. Partially due to finding a shearer, but also because I wanted to try something different. I've read about the benefits of shearing closer to lambing in both books and in online sheep forums. Frankly, they make a lot of sense. The ewes cleaner for birthing, preventing the possibility of dirty wool dags from being suckled by mistake by hungry lambs, it's easiest for lambs to find the teats on the udder, more of the ewes' body heat can be accessed by the lambs, air quality is better (wool holds onto moisture) helping prevent disease in the barn, the there is more room at the feeders, and it's easier to monitor the size of the ewe and her body condition for optimal feeding. By the time a ewe has outward signs of needing extra nutrition, the chances of her pulling through are low.
There are some downfalls to shearing late as well. The sheep eating more feed to keep warm, loss of condition without enough nutrition, losing lambs if they aren't mothered, don't nurse quick enough, or get lost or stolen by another ewe, or, like we had this year, they are born on on of the coldest nights of the year - this happens more than you'd think.
The real challenge is that most of the decisions around barn conditions in winter are premised on what happened in the previous months. For us, 2021 was a very good hay year. We have been lucky enough to go into winter with enough hay, meaning we don't anticipate having to buy any in (never say never). We have lots of both higher nutrition second cut, and high in fibre first cut. Each type of hay is fed for different reasons. The second cut earlier in the winter when nutrition needs are stable and little, if any grain is given, and more first cut when the ewes really need some more nutrition for growing lambs but less space to store it. Lambs take up a lot of space inside a ewe. Too much grain can cause problems from minor to death, it has to be a balance between high density nutrition, and enough fibre to keep the rumen going properly. Ensuring that the sheep have a draft-free, warm (for sheep) place to be and plenty of food and water is the best way to make sheep comfortable for the winter. Oh, and really watching for any changes going on.
The milksheep need the most support during the winter, especially the Lacaune sheep. Lacaune sheep aren't known for their long locks at the best of times. Between their almost bald bellies, and short wool (even at the best of times) , they are the barn baseline.
The East Friesians are more suited to the cold than the Lacaunes, at least that's what we find. Originating in the Friesland region of Germany and the Netherlands, it's likely that acclimatizing to colder weather is a given. They grow wool faster, thicker, and longer than the Lacaunes do. Ours, in general tend to lamb later, but not always.
Now the purebred milk sheep ewes (Lacaune and East Friesian) tend to be very, very happy to stay in the barn in winter no matter how much wool they have on at the time. Over the years we've learned that, even when given the opportunity to enjoy the fresh winter air, they'd rather not.
The crossbred milksheep are a mixed bag, but in general they are easier to manage than the purebreds. These girls are our homebred sheep that were kept for their resilience and hardiness. Right now, some are getting a wee bit fat on the milksheep friendly diet, but not so much where it's going to be hard for them to lamb.
Our sheep that consist mostly of Shetland, Gotland, and Leicester can sometimes seem like a different species. They could get by on very little grain, hay, and if an unshorn flock unto themselves, could easily be outside with only a wind shelter (as they are in a larger flock, once again, they aren't budging from the nice, comfy barn). These are our latest lambers. Their natural cycle is to breed late, and lamb when the weather is much nicer. These breeds can be lambed on pasture in April and May. If we didn't milk, that would be something we would do, but milking and pasture lambing generally don't mix, but I'm sure someone is doing it somewhere successfully.
Whew, that was far longer than I'd ever planned it being. I didn't even get into the wildlife around. Maybe next week. Thanks, and congratulations for getting to the end. I'll leave you with Bob and Pinky having a good romp in the barn. It looks like they one's trying to kill the other, but they are really playing. I'm saving them for another day, the deserve their own post!