|Fir Hill Farm after a snowfall|
Farmers tend to use long term forecasts, like the Farmers' Almanac, or the one provided in the Western Producer, to plan for seasonal activities. In winter forecasting, it is important to know in advance how bad the winter may become so that management changes can be made, and adequate feed and shelter can be anticipated.
According to Environment Canada, there are two factors that indicate a cold, snowy winter is ahead of us. One is that we are in the cold phase of La Nina. The other is that we may be in the cold phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a long-term ocean fluctuation of the Pacific Ocean. When these two are in phase they tend to amplify each other, resulting in a snowier, colder winter. Based on the recent snowfall and cold snap, it seems that the predictions may be accurate. It will likely be a far cry from the record breaking warm winter of last year.
For grain growers or vegetable producers that may be a signal to head to Cuba for a farm tour and warm weather. But for livestock producers, it means stocking up on long johns, warm socks and gloves. It also means waking early to frozen water systems that need thawing, feed that needs hauling, and ensuring livestock and poultry have access to windbreaks and shelters.
It is especially critical that livestock and poultry have access to clean water that is not frozen. Dehydration causes more problems than the cold itself in the winter. Lack of water will dramatically reduce egg production in chickens – no water, no eggs. The chicken just shuts down in order to preserve water for body functions. (The short days contribute to the decline in eggs, also). Chickens have an amazing ability to survive in frigid weather, as long as they can have shelter, food and water. Cows cannot eat enough snow for their water needs, and must have ice broken daily or given fresh water each day. Adequate water consumption is also important for enough feed to be consumed. Animals don't eat enough if they aren't provided with enough water.
Feed plays an important role in keeping livestock warm, besides providing needed nutrition for growth and survival. A well fed animal can keep warm from the heat of digestion, so full feed bunks are important in the winter.
I like to use molasses in the winter. Molasses can be added to water to encourage drinking, and also keeps the water from freezing quite as quickly. Molasses drizzled on hay or provided in tubs also provide energy and encourages feeding.
|Sheep eating and resting under the shelter of the trees|
Besides fresh water and feed, livestock and poultry also need shelter from the wind and cold. Barns, sheds, forests all provide shelter. Barns need to have good ventilation and be free of draughts – enough to keep animals out of the wind and pounding rain or snow, but not too airtight or there could be respiratory problems. Giving animals choice – access to a shelter, but not locked into it, is a good compromise so the animals can choose what is comfortable for them. It's helpful if animals are in groups, because they will often huddle together if weather is severe. I am amazed at how much animals can withstand, when you consider how people bundle up, heat up their homes, and stay indoors and out of the weather. Farmers are out every day in the weather and you get used to it. Animals also acclimate to the weather, and for the most part are okay. When there is any sudden change – to either very hot, or very cold – animals find it harder. Also, older animals and very young animals need extra care. We have small wool sweaters that can go on newborn lambs that are born outside when it is very cold. Most of our flock is expected to lamb in April when the worst of the weather has passed. However, based on the twin lambs born just this week, I think our breeding plan may have been adjusted by an eager ram. No doubt I will be spending a lot of time outside this winter, tending to the flock.