SheepInSnowI  wrote last about the book Making Your Small Farm Profitable by Ron Macher. Here is the second point made in his book that really resonated with me.

Principle: Let your animals learn to cope with winter. Your livestock may need better shelter in winter to protect them from the wind. Overall, though, the best thing you can do for you animals is to let them learn to cope. In northern areas, cattle will learn to graze through snow and and use the snow as a water source.

We are apt to do too many things for our animals that are not conducive to developing good, hardy breeding stock. Stock that can survive on the land on its own will minimize our input in time and supplies, allowing our labor to be used elsewhere, and saving money.

This is a mentality shift I’ve seen in myself as I move towards larger-scale production and away from a “pet” kind of farming idea.  The book’s author is also a Katahdin breeder. Our breed organization is heavily skewed towards promoting low-input-system stock. So, it’s no surprise that Macher echoes this notion, since it is widely praised within our community.

It’s a critical point. If you have ten sheep on small acreage and feed hay most of the year, it’s easy to provide a comfy barn in which the sheep can find refuge from even the tiniest mist of rain, winter chill or too-warm summer day. And given the choice, they will often shelter themselves from uncomfortable weather. But not always, it’s also common to see animals casually foraging in the worst of weather when they could easily enter an available barn and ride out the storm. This is, of course, because animals have feathers or fur, and they experience weather much differently than we do. 🙂 So we may think they are crazy to be standing out in the rain, but in fact, they are pretty weather-proof, they get used to it, and are quite comfortable in it. Our chickens and ducks have night shelters to protect them from predators, but they never choose to harbor in them during the day, no matter how hot or cold it gets!

Once you get a sizeable herd, and if you are doing the nowadays-popular intensive pasture management, where you move animals every several days, providing structural “comfort” housing becomes nearly impossible. And certainly no feedlot operation provides shelter for the thousands of animals they keep (pigs excluded, since they are usually raised inside bio-security buildings, only to control disease spread).

And I would add to Macher’s thinking that acclimating animals to summer is just as important as winter. Production animals must, and do, adjust to the weather and cope just fine out in the open, given the chance to acclimate. Just like wild animals must. And most of the time, the seasons change gradually enough to allow animals to grow more hair or shed some, in order to regulate their own temperatures and stay dry during the rainiest seasons.

The only exception to sheltering animals, I think, might be when a rapid and unseasonable change in the weather arrives, or some temperature extreme to which the animals are not accustomed. Then their physical stress might be offset by providing minimal temporary shelter to help them through the crisis, preventing hypo- or hyperthermia.

I, an d other farmers I know, often get questions about whether the animals are OK out in the rain, snow, or sun. Sometimes passers-by will call Animal Control out of concern for the welfare of pastured livestock in the area. This is another area where “city people” have become so separated from the realities of animal production that they no longer understand how farming works, what is an acceptable practice, or what the law requires. Considering the immense cost associated with building a barn big enough to house 100, or 1,000 head of cattle or sheep, and then the bedding and labor required to keep it clean,  the price per pound for meat produced by a “sheltering” operation would be enormous!

Clearly, it’s not done because the consumer would not be willing to bear that burden of cost. And also because it’s just not necessary, good livestock are weatherproof livestock. Any animal distressed by our mild Northwest weather would not be a welcome breeder in my herd or flocks. And that includes lambs: I expect that they can be born in the pouring rain or freezing snow, that their mother will get them quickly dry and up and nursing, and that they will thrive in the pasture no matter what the weather. A lamb that needs barn coddling is an expensive meat animal, and nobody should want that in a business-minded breeding program.