Keeping cows, sheep, chickens, pigs, goats, horses, and other livestock cool isn’t rocket science, but it takes some advance planning. Heat stress can occur anytime the mercury rises above 80 degrees Fahrenheit or so, especially for animals being worked (i.e. draft horses), confined in close quarters without ventilation, or lacking access to shade. Goats are among the most heat tolerant livestock, as are, surprisingly, sheep – their wool actually protects them from extreme heat as well as cold. Pigs and cattle are among the least heat-tolerant livestock.
The signs of heat stress are more subtle with livestock than, say, dogs who pant heavily. Horses become visibly wet with sweat, but pigs, goats, sheep, and cows don’t have the type of sweat glands that help them cool off. Instead their snouts may be wet to the touch from sweat, and their mouths may hang open slightly. Chickens open their beaks and spread their wings when they are extremely hot. Classic signs of heatstroke in all livestock include lethargy, disorientation, trembling, and lack of appetite.
If such symptoms occur, immediately move the animal into the shade, provide chilled drinking water, and gently spray them down with a hose. It’s a good idea to keep electrolytes on hand, which can be mixed into drinking water to revive an overheated, dehydrated animal. Electrolytes should be available at your local feed store, though in a pinch you can make your own with common household items – here is a handy recipe. And here are 5 steps you can take to keep your animals cool in hopes that you never get to that point. They are primarily geared for small livestock herds, though many of the principles apply to large-scale operations as well.
Supply Clean, Cool Water
Providing clean drinking water is a prerequisite for keeping livestock no matter what the temperature is, but going the extra mile with your watering regime pays off in extreme heat.
- Place watering troughs in the shade, or switch to automatic waterers that replenish themselves with fresh cool water from a buried pipe each time an animal takes a drink, almost like a water fountain for people.
- Add extra watering devices so dominant animals don’t prevent weaker animals from taking a drink whenever they need to.
- Freeze plastic tubs of water overnight to create ice blocks for cooling watering troughs down to a more refreshing temperature.
Shade, Shade, Shade
Ample space in the shade should be available to every animal on hot days, though keep in mind that all shade is not created equal. A forested area for your animals to lounge is much cooler than a barn with a hot tin roof and insufficient ventilation. If you lack the shade of large trees, the next best thing is an open-sided shade structure in your pasture. This may be as simple as four wooden posts with a tarp or shade cloth strung between them, or you can invest in a lightweight movable shade structure.
Turn on the Fan
If you must keep your animals in a barn or other enclosed structure, ample ventilation is essential. Windows and vents are generally not sufficient. An ordinary household fan might do the trick in a small chicken coop, but you need multiple heavy duty livestock fans for larger facilities. Just be sure to mount fans off the ground so your animals will not be at risk of knocking them over, injuring themselves with the blades, or chewing on electrical cords.
Wet Down the Barnyard
In the natural world, watering holes are an oasis for the animal kingdom. On farms, pigs, cows, and horses happily cool off in a pond or river if they have access to one (as a general rule, poultry, sheep, and goats will not willingly enter the water – though check out these surfing goats!) However, giving livestock access to natural bodies of water on a farm comes with a host of problems, such as fecal pollution and the risk of spreading disease among the animals, so this practice is best avoided. The one exception is for pigs, who have evolved with wallowing behavior and want nothing more than a shallow depression in the barnyard filled with water for them on a hot day.
Instead, rig up a sprinkler system to keep your animals cool on the hottest days. Sprinklers designed for landscaping work fine – use a sprinkler timer to water a shaded area in the barnyard for five or 10 minutes every hour. If you must keep your animals confined in a barn during hot weather, install a livestock misting system in conjunction with your fans.
Apply Sunscreen and Give Frozen Treats
Sunburn is a major issue for light-skinned pigs, which is one reason why they like to cover themselves with mud. And pigs are naturally forest animals, so if you can’t provide a daily mud bath or a shaded environment to live in, you may need to slather them up with sunscreen to keep them from getting burned. Sunscreen for humans works fine, though there are special spray-on livestock sunscreens that are easier to apply. Freshly shorn sheep and any livestock with short, light-colored hair are also susceptible to sunburn. (Though sunscreen is not a very practical approach if you have 1,000 head of cattle).
Finally, an overheated animal will relish something cold to nosh on. If you have an extra refrigerator, chill the daily grain ration before feeding, and it will help to cool the animal from the inside out. It’s best to feed such concentrated feedstuffs at the end of the day in hot weather, as the digestive process causes animals to heat up. But there is no harm in freezing excess fruit and vegetables and offering them to your animals as a special treat in the heat of the day.