Thursday, November 6, 2008

Coping with Cold; Feeding in the bitter cold weather

As much as I don't particularly like the cold, it's just part of the life where I live and when you have livestock, things can become more complicated in the cold. When I dream of living somewhere a bit warmer, like Arizona, Tom gently reminds me of the vast amount of lizards I would have to deal with. Well, on second thought...maybe a few months of bitter cold isn't so bad???
Surprisingly, horses ( can vary upon breed as well) can do quite well in colder climates, in fact , I have read numerous articles that they actually acclimate better to cold than to heat. While that may be true, there are a few things that we, as horse owners, have to take heed to assure they are healthy and happy when ol' man winter comes blowing in .

So what do I do? I prepare, and prepare some more. I tend to prefer to be proactive so as not to be caught unaware. Perfect planning prevents mishap...OK... maybe not all the time... but it does provide peace of mind knowing you have done all you can humanly possibly do to prevent trouble with your livestock in the winter. There is nothing worse than dealing with a colicky horse in 20 below with a wind chill factor of -20, especially if you don't have the luxury of a barn, believe me , I have been there.

In a previous post, I talked about our stock tank covers. Making sure that the tank heaters are placed in stock tanks and working properly before the first major storm blows in is one of the prevention measures we take. Some horses won't drink super cold water... and unfortunately they can't get enough hydration from the snow. A horse that won't drink is a recipe for disaster. They , just like people, need to remain well hydrated in order to help their bodies regulate internal temperatures. Installing the tank heaters is a sure way to make sure the water remains at an ambient temp suitable for drinking. The other is making sure we have plenty of hay stored to get us through....peace of mind....knowing that there are weeks when we have to feed alot heavier during the cold winter months.

That brings me to subject of feeding in the bitter cold. Nothing sounds better to me than a hot bowl of oatmeal for breakfast on a cold morning. It turns out, some horse owners follow a bi-weekly or even a more frequent practice of fixing up a hot breakfast cereal mash for their horses as well. While that certainly can’t hurt and your horses likely enjoys his hot mash, it doesn’t go far to keep your horses warm for an extended period of time. And, if your in bitter cold temps, the hot mash freezes rather quickly, sometimes before your horse can get it all down.

Many horse owners also choose to feed extra grain during cold spells in an attempt to help their horses stave off the cold. While extra grain seems logical, feeding more hay will do much more to help your horse keep warm. Here's why:

Grain is composed of starch or carbohydrates which are broken down by digestive enzymes and absorbed as sugars in the small intestine. The resulting increase in blood sugar provides energy for muscle contraction and powers most other body systems. Roughage (hay) on the other hand is composed of more complex carbohydrates that resist enzymatic digestion in the small intestine. These large molecules are passed into the large intestine and become the food for a variety of bacteria and protozoa. Ever stick your hand intro fresh grass clippings that have been setting in a pile for a few hours? Well then you know first hand that heat is a significant by product of fermentation. (hopefully your hay stack hasn’t experienced this as this would create on huge bonfire!) This same process occurs in the colon of your horse. While heat is considered a waste product when feeding a horse that is in work or lactation, it is very beneficial in maintaining body heat during periods of cold weather.

Feeding additional grain will help your horse maintain weight and give him more energy to shiver but feeding extra hay will cause additional heat production from digestion.

You can also opt to help your horse remain warm by adding a blanket. We occasionally blanket if the wind starts howling because even with all the hay they could possibly eat, their bodies can lose that heat more quickly then they can generate. Older horses are also at a higher risk and often times require clothing as they can't always generate the extra layer of body fat needed to stay warm. Overall, mother nature does a fantastic job of making sure horses are equipped to stay warm in winter but since domestic horses don't always have the opportunity to feed in the manner the horses system was designed for (eating through out the day ) we sometimes need to step in and mimick that environment as closely as possible to keep our horses warm, healthy and happy.

So this winter when one of our notorious arctic cold fronts sweeps into the valley, I will be feeding JB a little less of his usual amount of grain, and throw out an extra flake or two of hay.

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