We were still new to goat herding when the first icy storm of 2019 blew in. I felt sure our Nigerian Dwarf herd could not survive it outdoors and insisted they be brought into our basement overnight. My husband objected. So, of course, while I set up a space near the boiler, he went out to the yard to guide our three goats in through the snow and wind.
As soon they were settled into the warmth, however, I learned that our efforts were not appreciated. Princess Buttercup, the lead bleater, protested so loudly that we couldn’t sleep. Finally, we resettled all three in their uninsulated shelter and cleaned up the piles of gifts they’d left downstairs.
Goats adjust to the cold. If I had paid closer attention, I would have noticed the extra coat they’d been growing since the fall beneath their coarser fur. Nigerian Dwarf goats, despite being a breed that originated in West Africa, were imported to the United States in the 1930s. Since then they have proved to be hardy enough to survive even in regions farther north than ours because of their ability to grow this extra layer. Wearing their puffy winter fur coats, our goats were sweltering in the warmth of the basement.
It won’t do any good to knit woolen sweaters for your herd or to cover your goats in blankets. But there are some things you can do to help keep them warm.
In order for a goat’s cashmere-like undercoat to come in healthy and thick, it’s essential to make sure they have a balanced diet and access to minerals, such as zinc and copper, that encourage fur growth. Feeding ample hay in addition to grain is important year-round, because goats have four stomachs. Like cows and sheep, they have a rumen — the first and biggest stomach — that breaks down roughage to create heat from the inside out. In fact, if you don’t feed them hay in the winter, your herd can freeze to death. Adding some alfalfa hay to regular dried grasses is an extra treat and source of energy and protein.
This week, our goats have been happily devouring post-holiday roughage in the form of Christmas trees and wreaths. Pine needles provide antioxidants such as vitamins C and A, phytonutrients, and flavonoids. In addition, the sap acts as a natural dewormer. Be picky about these treats, though — you don’t want your goats eating pesticides. Also, if your goats never forage, the Christmas leftovers may give them a bad case of indigestion.
You don’t need to do much to winterize a goat shelter, but it’s a good idea to keep the goats out of the wind and rain by positioning the shelter so that the door is facing south. Good ventilation is essential, and you can add a wooden platform and extra layer of hay for your goats to lie on, but there is no need to insulate walls for the winter.
You surely know already that you should never keep one goat on her own. Your herd will huddle close in the cold to share warmth.
Most goats hate snow as much as they do rain. Still, you need to make sure they romp at least once or twice a day to create heat. Our Lance Romance leads an occasional mad charge through the snowy paddock with Puck close at his heels and Buttercup trotting lazily behind. We urge them on with food, setting out banana peels, apple slices, and other treats.
Don’t let their water bucket freeze. Spoiling your herd with warm drinking water will help to keep them hydrated in the cold.
There are two circumstances that interfere with goat’s ability to tolerate winter. When a doe is kidding, she cannot handle the cold. Newborn kids cannot either. This is why breeding around December or January for summer births makes the most sense here. If you do by accident end up birthing kids in winter, you might find yourself with goats in your basement after all.