Housing Livestock Indoors in Winter

Autumn is a time of shorter days and cooler temperatures, and leading into winter, this only becomes more pronounced. It is time to consider the housing of your livestock indoors; however, there are several issues to look at in order to maximise your animals’ comfort and welfare.

When you have decided to move your herd or flock indoors, it is important to make sure that everything is well-planned in advance. You may need extra help, particularly if you have large groups of animals to move/relocate.

The change in routine/circumstances is likely to cause stress, so ensure that there is time given to adapt. Stress can have an effect on the animal’s immune system, reducing their ability to fight off diseases, and also on their reaction to vaccines. Making sure vaccinations are up to date before the move is sensible planning. Diet will change when moved indoors – it is worth gradually increasing the level of ‘indoor’ foods prior to the move, as it may take a while for the digestive system to adapt.

In addition to the move affecting your animals’ condition, pasture can also benefit by having a ‘rest’, with improved growth seen in the spring. It can also reduce the muddiness caused by trampling/hooves.

Moisture

Moisture levels in housing units can have varied effects. Damp/moist enclosed areas can result in increased levels of harmful pathogens. Indeed, calves can be exposed to new bacteria and viruses when newly housed indoors, so minimising the levels of these is a priority.

Moisture can also lower temperatures – your flock/herd will need to use more energy to keep warm, and this can affect productivity. Their general condition may deteriorate, and they may have a slow growth rate. Your main reason for housing your livestock indoors is to keep them warm, so make sure that you can provide an improved situation for them.

Basic maintenance of the housing can help reduce moisture levels, e.g. repairing leaky roofs and water troughs. Also, make sure that the drainage is effective, particularly in the sleeping areas (consider a sloping floor). When washing the floors, try not to soak the areas. A regular supply of fresh, dry bedding is also essential.

Ventilation  

Ventilation is also related to moisture levels in indoor housing, and an effective system can help reduce the number of pathogens in the environment. As mentioned above, damp housing can be ideal breeding grounds for these, so a drier atmosphere due to good air movement can only be a good thing. It can also have the effect of removing airborne pathogens, as well as pollutants such as ammonia.

Good ventilation is involved in effective temperature control. As well as the effect that colder temperatures have, it is important not to let your herd/flock overheat. Cows in particular can be affected by heat stress – this can be a fatal condition. Getting the right balance is essential – daily checking of the environment’s temperature can help to maintain a healthy level. Also, monitor your animals for potential signs, e.g. shivering, raised hair.

The stack effect-type of ventilation is the most straightforward. This relies on the warm air from your herd rising, and thus drawing in cooler air from outside, with a negative pressure effect. However, be aware of the cooling effects of strong breezes, and avoid air inlets at animal height.

An open-ridge design of housing can enhance the stack effect, as does a steeper-pitched roof. The number of air inlets and outlets can have an effect, as does the density of the animal group (a small number of animals in a large space may not produce enough heat to drive the effect). It is also worth considering the inlet locations – if too close to other buildings, the air being drawn in may not be of good quality. Be aware also that cold buildings, such as those with a lot of exposed concrete or damp infrastructure, will reduce the effectiveness of the stack effect.

If this type of ventilation system is not effective in your indoor housing, for whatever reason, then mechanical means can be used, such as extractor/ventilation fans. It may be worth seeking expert advice regarding the best system for your housing. Effective ventilation is also beneficial for humans working with the livestock – it can minimise airborne pollutants/build-up of gases such as carbon dioxide and ammonia.

Types of housing

Two main types of cattle housing are used – deep litter enclosures, and cubicles. The former consists of larger enclosed areas, with enough room for the cattle to move around and lie down. The floor, often concrete, is covered by a deep layer of bedding material, e.g. straw. Cubicles are individual enclosures/compartments in which the cow can lie down. There may be a hollow beneath a cubicle that may be filled with sand and topped by other bedding materials – these are called deep-bedded. If there are cubicles, however, there should also be an open area available so that the animals can socialise/mix with others, and also feed together. A regular supply of fresh dry bedding is essential – it is important to calculate how much you will need to see you through until spring.

Sheep housing can be simple in design, particularly in milder locations, however, if the weather/winter is very harsh, a more robust structure may be needed, such as a barn. A basic shelter may have an open side – make sure that this is not facing the direction of the prevailing wind, however. It can be beneficial for sheep to spend some time out of doors even at this time of year, particularly when considering respiratory issues.

Any type of structure will benefit from having good drainage, and indeed being on elevated ground. Straw is commonly used for sheep, in a deep-bedded arrangement. Although some sheep can survive outside in winter without any issues, pregnant ewes benefit from being housed indoors. It is also easier for farmers to monitor them, and improve their body conditioning score if needed. Feeding in general can be done in smaller groups, and lessen the panic that can occur in larger groups.

Overcrowding can cause stress, leading to underperformance, and can also contribute to overheating. Pregnant/lambing ewes need more space, so this should be taken into account when calculating housing density. After every lambing, bedding should be removed, and pens disinfected after the ewe and lambs are removed.

Regardless of the design, the housing areas/buildings should be inspected regularly, to ensure that they are clean, and pest/problem-free. If there are any issues, they can be dealt with/fixed early.

Disease risk

When animals are in close proximity, they are more susceptible to illness/pathogens, as detailed previously – and also parasites such as lice and mites. Both sheep and cattle are susceptible to these – they can be passed easily between animals during feeding and handling. There is also the risk of transmission via the environment, e.g. scratching posts.

Lice are more prevalent in winter – they prefer colder temperatures, and the thicker coats/fleeces grown in winter also suit them better. There are several different types, which may live off blood, hair/fleece, skin, or other debris. The level of infestation can affect, and indeed be affected by the general condition of the animal in question – so by making sure that your animals are at their best prior to the move indoors, you can help to reduce the detrimental effect that these parasites have.

Depending on whether the lice are biting or sucking types, anaemia can be an issue, as can skin damage due to scratching/rubbing and localised reactions, and hair loss. Indirectly, an animal that is irritated can negatively affect the whole group by increasing stress levels. Some animals may have an infestation at a level that causes no clinical symptoms – however, if they are then subject to stress, or other health issues, the infestation may become apparent due to deterioration in their condition. Treatment of lice can be done by injection or pour-on methods – it is important to treat the whole group, however.

When indoors, sheep can still be prone to foot-rot (caused by bacteria) – deep-bedded areas can increase the risk, therefore it is important to also have areas of hardstanding in order that their feet can dry off. Straw trapped in hooves can cause abrasions, and an environment for bacteria to grow, so foot-bathing is considered a way of dealing with this issue.

Feeding

When it comes to feeding your livestock indoors, it is important to consider the effect of temperature on their nutritional needs. Lower external temperatures result in an increased need for calories, in order to maintain core body temperature. For cows, this increased need can be up to 20% higher than in warmer months, in order to maintain their weight. In the absence of fresh grass/pasture, cows may be fed forage, hay, silage, grain, and supplements (if indicated).

Trough feeding sheep outdoors can result in uneven intake in the flock – there may be no food left by the time some individuals arrive. This type of feeding can also cause a panic, leading to increased stress levels. When fed indoors, it is possible to feed individuals or smaller groups, and indeed monitoring input is easier. Sheep may be fed silage, forage and concentrates, also a liquid feed such as molasses can be added in. Feeding levels may be adjusted according to what is happening, e.g. lactating ewes have an increased need, due to their lambs’ demands.

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