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Shelter From The Storm | Fall 2007 Out Here Magazine

Shelters, such as this run-in shed, should face away from the prevailing winds.

Now is the time to build a winter shed for your livestock

By Lynn Allen

Photograph courtesy of
Virginia Frame Builders and Supply, Inc.

If this winter is anything like last February, where temperatures across the country plummeted and snow piled high, it's a good idea to start thinking now about providing your livestock with protection from harsh weather.

Cattle, horses, goats, sheep, and even alpacas and llamas can usually handle rainy, windy, or cold temperatures, but when these elements combine, livestock can quickly become chilled. Most vulnerable are animals that are old, young, thin, not well, or newly shorn.

At the very least, a windbreak — even from a stand of trees — is vital, says one animal expert.

"If the animals have a windbreak, they will survive," says Cynthia McCall, an Auburn (AL) University professor and cooperative extension horse specialist. "They may be cold, they may have a miserable night once in awhile, but they will survive if they have some way to get out of the wind."

She advises, however, that livestock have access to a roofed shelter. Dry and out of the wind is better than a windbreak.

It doesn't have to be an enclosed barn; an open-faced shed is usually adequate, allowing the animals to come and go as necessary, McCall says.

"I like a two- or three-sided shed… if (an animal) is sick or injured you can take some panels and make a stall out of it," she says.

In planning a shelter, the first consideration is placement. Choose well-drained, high ground to prevent the floor from flooding or turning into a mud pit

The shelter should face away from the prevailing winds, but consider thunderstorm and snow drifting patterns, too. A shed buried in a snowdrift is useless.

Another consideration is what kind of animals will use the shed. A basic rule of thumb is to give each animal a space approximately four times its body size. For a horse, that means about 75 square feet. For a goat, it's closer to 4 square feet, she says.

A too-small shelter can allow an aggressive lead animal to force the rest of the herd to stand in the weather, or may force the most submissive animal out of the shed.

"I don't like narrow openings, either," McCall notes. "A dominant animal can trap another inside a shed and injure it, if the opening is too small." Openings should be large enough that the lead animal can't block it, she says.

In regions of extreme cold, openings can be covered with carpet or other heavy fabric that an animal can push through to enter or exit, but the wind can't whip around.

Check regularly, though, to make sure the animals aren't afraid to push through the covering, and that nothing is eating it. Keep in mind, however, that covering doorways reduces airflow, which can lead to respiratory problems for your livestock if the shelters aren't cleaned regularly.

Blinding snow, driving rain, and whipping winds aren't exactly top of mind in the mild days of early fall, but if you build shelter now, your livestock will benefit, come the bone-chilling days and nights of winter.

Livestock shelters don't have to be fancy or expensive. The goal is simply to give animals a way to escape the worst weather.

Lynn Allen is an agricultural journalist based in Colorado.