Goats in the Cold Part One - How Goats Keep Warm Naturally and Supplemental Heat Options
This piece was originally published in the Winter 2018 Kinder Quarterly. Though I am a fan of their products, I am not affiliated with Premier1. Goats have adapted to survive and thrive in extreme climates from frigid mountains to hot deserts. Basic shelters are adequate in most circumstances, but certain animals might require supplemental heat in particularly nasty winter weather. Goats that are very young or old, thin, or sport a short-clipped coat are more susceptible to cold weather. Some animals lack cashmere, the warm, downy layer of hair close to the body. Ill or stressed goats are also more susceptible to less-than-ideal temperatures. The best shelters are well-ventilated, draft-free, and bedded with a dry material that is not dusty - for the sake of this article, assume these criteria have been met.
A goat’s thermal neutral zone is between 32° and 86° Fahrenheit. The thermal neutral zone is the temperature range in which the animal is most productive with the least stress. When temperatures dip below freezing, goats have to expend more energy to maintain body temperature. Of course, this might happen above freezing temperatures if the weather is damp and windy - as with humans, the "real feel" temperature matters!
How do goats keep warm naturally? The most obvious way is by their hair coat. Most goats have a downy undercoat of cashmere that provides excellent insulation. The outer coat is comprised of guard hairs that keep water, dirt, and snow off of the undercoat. The arrector pili muscles contract and raise the guard hairs to keep a layer of warm air trapped in the cashmere layer close to the body, giving the goat’s coat that “poofy” appearance. Body condition also affects how well a goat can thermoregulate. Goats carry only around ten percent body fat, but muscle tissue has about twice the overall thermal conductivity as fat does. Animals with a low body condition score or little muscling are less tolerant of cold weather. Shivering generates body heat but uses a lot of energy.
I did learn it is very difficult to get good pictures of goat hair with a cell phone! The two center photos are of a doeling with a medium-length thick coat but with no noticeable cashmere. Her dam has no cashmere and a fine, shorter coat - she is noticeably colder than her herdmates in the winter, poor thing. The two outside photos show the cashmere undercoat - the soft white downish fluff near the skin.
Keeping a goat well-fed with roughage is a very effective strategy to generate body heat; according to Goat Medicine by Mary C. Smith and David M. Sherman, “the heat of fermentation from digestion helps maintain body temperature…the rumen acting as an internal hot water bottle.” Hear that - those rumens are heaters! Feeding plenty of good hay to your goats is a wonderful way to help them stay warmer in cold weather. Many producers choose to offer hay free-choice. Water is, of course, vital - it is especially important for does in milk (read a study on that here at source 6) and bucks and wethers (decreased urination in bucks and wethers can increase the risk of urinary calculi) But did you know the temperature of the water a goat drinks can affect digestion and the goat's body temperature? It can be especially important for does in milk (read a study on that here at source 6) and bucks and wethers (decreased urination in bucks and wethers can increase the risk of urinary calculi). Goat Medicine by Smith and Sherman states that consuming cold water, especially in cold weather, can actually negatively affect rumen function! Source 7 mentions this as well - "Additionally, the temperature of the water ingested is also an important factor because water may become a thermal buffer in the rumen-reticulum protecting or changing the fermentation capacity and therefore affecting the microbial function." So, offer goats warm water once or twice a day in cold weather to encourage consumption and keep their rumens operating in top-notch condition.
Finally, in cold weather, the horns vasoconstrict, so they lose less heat - pretty amazing.
Goats often seek out wind-blocks that also allow access to sunshine. The sun acts as a radiant heater, warming objects instead of the air – buildings, animals, ground, etc. Structures in the sunlight help warm the animal instead of absorbing the animal’s body heat. For this reason, sunny south-facing or east-facing shelters are especially favored during cold weather.
Young kids are far more susceptible to cold stress than adult animals are. Kids cannot regulate their body temperatures well and do not have large energy reserves or functioning rumens – at least for several weeks – and might need additional drying-off at birth, extra bedding, or a supplemental heat source. Additionally, kids have a single, soft "baby" coat instead of guard hairs that shed water and a layer of cashmere - thus, kids can't "poof up" like older animals. If any of the goat’s natural methods of maintaining body temperature have been compromised or if the weather is unusually frigid etc., owners might consider supplemental heat. While there are options available to heat an entire building, this article will focus on temporary options used to heat a specific area.
Heat lamps are a common, relatively inexpensive choice. Premiere 1 Supplies offers two popular heating options – the Prima Heat Lamp™ and carbon fiber heaters. The Prima Heat Lamp™ can be used with standard or infrared bulbs and is constructed of heavy-duty plastic. The bulb is completely enclosed in a thick plastic grill, and an anti-chew coil is wound around the first foot or so of cord. https://www.premier1supplies.com/p/prima-heat-lamp
A carbon fiber heater is a higher heat-output option, available in various wattages. These heaters are more suitable to a larger area and should be hung higher from the ground than standard heat lamps are. The carbon fiber heaters available through Premiere 1 Supplies feature a built in “kill switch” that will disable the unit if the heater tilts too far or falls. Both the heaters and lamps from Premier 1 offer secure hanging attachments, and the company provides replacement parts and instructions. On the website, potential buyers can peruse product reviews, and the company has provided ample instructions on using their products safely.
Many owners utilize enclosed warming areas, especially for kids. Repurposed barrels, crates, or dog igloos can provide a cozy hideaway, in addition to providing a barrier between the heat lamp and flammable materials or inquisitive adult goats. Warming areas that topple easily, such as barrels, must be securely attached to a solid structure such as a barn wall or fence. Make sure there is ample space in these small areas for the number of kids to prevent possible suffocation.
Others use heating mats – often whelping mats or farrowing mats. These mats are usually rugged and waterproof, and provide a wide, warm area for animals to bed down. As with lamps and heaters, make sure mats are used according to product directions.
If the goat-keeper decides supplemental heat is necessary – no matter how supplemental heat is provided – safety should be of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the number one cause of barn fires from 2006 to 2010 was heating equipment, followed by electrical issues. Over 20% of fires were caused by heat lamps.
Heat lamps should be hung at least twenty inches from the ground and walls. Neither lamps nor heaters should be hung directly by the cord. It is best to provide more than one secure hanging option – doubling chains, hooks, or clips to prevent falling or damage. For lamps without enclosed bulbs, wire covers can provide a barrier between the bulb and any flammable materials. As an additional safety measure, some folks use sand directly under lamps or heaters, instead of shavings or straw. Bulbs and sockets should be undamaged and clean; dust and cobwebs are surprisingly flammable. Make sure the type and wattage of bulb used is compliant with the product manufacturer’s specifications. Heat lamps create excessive heat in wiring and cords; this heat can melt wires and create electrical shorts. Cords and wiring should be inspected frequently for damage. Additionally, electric cords and wires should be hung out of reach of livestock, covered in some type of anti-chew coil, or run through a chew-proof material such as PVC pipe.
While goats are generally temperature-hardy creatures, providing safe supplemental heat can make winter weather more comfortable for some animals or even save the lives of kids. Yet supplemental heating options need to be used with the utmost care! In the next article, I will address the great Goat Coat Debate and detail what I do here.
2. “Environmental Aspects of Housing for Animal Production” – J.A. Clark.
3. “Goat Medicine” – Mary C. Smith and David M. Sherman.
4. www.nfpa.org 5. Castro-Costa, A., et al. “Using Wireless Rumen Sensors for Evaluating the Effects of Diet and Ambient Temperature in Nonlactating Dairy Goats.” Journal of Dairy Science, Elsevier, 7 May 2015, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S002203021500291X?fbclid=IwAR3VcBaOUy9mEsa3YLCG4ewr0IR3pTgFeoi60-62u5wD4UIzE1qGDjukDCQ
6. OLSSON, K. and HYDBRING, E. (1996), The preference for warm drinking water induces hyperhydration in heat‐stressed lactating goats. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 157: 109-114. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-201X.1996.d01-727.x
7. ARAUJO, Gherman Garcia Leal de et al. Water and small ruminant production. R. Bras. Zootec. [online]. 2010, vol.39, suppl. [cited 2021-01-06], pp.326-336. Available from: <http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1516-35982010001300036&lng=en&nrm=iso>. ISSN 1806-9290. https://doi.org/10.1590/S1516-35982010001300036.