Animal Naturopathy is a major part of our life here at Highland Glenn Ranch, so I’ve been writing a series of posts on our English Shepherd blog discussing the naturopathic Eight Laws of Health. I wanted to share one here also as it relates to all the other animals on the Ranch - Water.
Rain, snow, sleet, hail, gropple (yes, there really is such a weather term!) are all forms of water, or more precisely precipitation, during winter. The tendency may be to think that animals have decreased winter water needs. The fact is they need it in the depths of winter just as in the height of summer. Frigid air results in loss of hydration. For goodness sake, freezing temperatures can pull the moisture right out of wet laundry (think “freeze drying”) and you should see my hands in winter!
Although animals do eat snow, it should never be their main source of water. It lowers their body temperature thereby increasing the need for food and shelter to keep warm; and they simply cannot fill their water needs in that form… period. Have you ever melted a big pot of snow to see how much water you get in the end? Barely a fraction of what you collected!
Cattle maintain a high need for water in winter. For one thing, they are eating hay which has very little moisture compared to fresh grass. Second, water is absolutely essential to healthy rumen function, thus complete nutrient absorption as well as generating heat to keep warm. Third, a lot of water is needed for adequate milk production. Oftentimes lactating cows visit the water trough many times more than the rest of the herd. Providing large quantities of water in freezing temperatures is challenging. A bovine can slurp down a couple gallons of water at a time! If the ice in the water trough is fairly thin they break it themselves, but on really cold days when it’s much thicker, we need to help. Icy cold water can cause shivering and disrupt rumen activity. Be prepared to supplement your herd with some good alfalfa hay if this happens, even as little as one flake per day will help. Some folks utilize a tank heater and/or automatic waterer, these are real work savers. Our Ranch uses very little electricity so we have to think of alternative solar methods.
Our rabbit herds’ winter water needs remain fairly constant. Rabbits have an interesting ability to adjust their consumption in freezing temperatures. After we knock the ice out of the crock and refill it, they instinctively drink as much as possible before it freezes again. Just like cattle, if the ice that forms is thin enough they will break it themselves.
Even though sheep are also eating dry hay in winter, their water needs seem to decrease slightly, possibly because their wool fleece retains so much body heat. However, being ruminants like cattle they still need to have fresh, ice-free water available at all times for complete rumen function. And they don’t seem as keen to break ice out of their bucket, but baa for help instead!
Chickens are similar to sheep in a slight decrease of winter water needs but definitely need their human caretakers to keep it clear of ice.
The health and happiness of your animals is worth the extra work in winter caring for their water needs!