Wooly Warmth and Comfy Cattle: Winter on the Prairie

Photograph of Cattle in winter

There’s a chill in the air and frost covers the ground each morning. The brightly colored leaves have fallen from the trees and the fields have been harvested. The Headless Horseman has made his last ride for the year, and the outdoor areas are closed for the season. It’s late fall at Conner Prairie and while the grounds may be a little quieter, the Ag Team is hard at work preparing for winter.     

A question we are frequently asked is “Where do the animals go in the winter?” The simple answer is, “They stay right here!” The cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, hogs, donkeys, and rabbits you’ll meet when you visit call Conner Prairie home all year long. 

Photograph of Arapawa goat

The heritage breeds of livestock we raise at Conner Prairie are known for their adaptability and tolerance for variations in weather, and they are well-suited to handle Indiana’s summer heat and winter cold with ease. However, it is our job to help make sure they have everything they need to get through the winter months comfortably and safely, and the Agriculture Staff works hard to keep the animals safe and healthy all year-round. Our dedicated Ag Team is here 365 days each year, regardless of inclement weather or holidays, to ensure that the livestock who call Conner Prairie home are fed and cared for appropriately. 

Helping our animals have a cozy winter

To have a successful winter, we have to start early. Preparation begins when the leaves are still green, the days are still long, and the temperature is still high. Summer is prime time for stacking the hay that will feed our animals all year long. The work doesn’t stop when it gets cold, though! November is a time to finalize winter preparations. We set up tank heaters to keep our animals’ water fresh and thawed once temperatures plummet. We perform any needed maintenance on our sheds and barns to ensure our animals have warm, sturdy protection from the elements. We start dividing our animals into their designated breeding groups, ensuring that we will have new babies come spring. We spend the rest of our winters building and repairing fences, deep cleaning barns, sheds, coops, and pens, spreading compost on our gardens, and completing everything else on our long, never-ending to-do list. Even on days when the weather is too nasty to spend all day outside, we are working hard planning upcoming programs, designing new experiences, and training our staff to make the coming season even better.   

Photograph of our Ossabaw hogs

Adequate nutrition is vital to the health and wellbeing of our animals, and winter is no exception. As the rich green pastures they graze during the spring and summer lay dormant, our cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys chow down on high quality hay selected for their specific needs. In addition to the hay and species-specific feeds, we offer some of our animals extra supplements during the cold months. One of our favorites is leftover Halloween pumpkins; they are an enriching, nutritious snack and our pigs and chickens especially love them! We provide protein tubs for our cattle, sheep, and goats, giving them a boost of energy and helping them supplement the energy they expend staying warm. The ruminant digestive system – that our cattle, sheep, and goats have – naturally generates a lot of heat; plus, livestock have higher body temperatures than humans do, keeping them warm from the inside out!   

Photograph of our Tunis Sheep

Protection from the elements is also vital for our animals’ health throughout the winter. Most livestock naturally put on a little extra fat in the fall months and grow thicker wool or hair, helping them regulate their body temperatures when the temperatures drop. In fact, we want to see snow on the backs of our cattle; this means that their bodies are insulating and retaining heat. We make sure all our animals have access to shelters and clean, dry straw bedding. The pigs especially love to burrow and make cozy nests, and the chickens enjoy roosting in their warm nest boxes. Fresh air is also extremely important to keep our animals healthy, and barns can get stuffy, so except for on the nastiest of days we let our animals have access outside. Most of the time they would much rather be outdoors, even on the coldest days!  The first snowfall is always entertaining as well; for most of our babies born in the spring, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen snow and some of them aren’t too sure what to think about it!

Keeping an eye on health and happiness

Warmer winter days are a perfect opportunity for us to work closely with our animals. Our oxen need to be worked whenever possible to make sure they stay sharp and conditioned. Quiet days are perfect opportunities to practice low-stress livestock handling methods with our staff and have halter training lessons with our younger animals. Hoof trimming, vaccinations, health checks, and other routine veterinary care happen throughout the winter too, and as March approaches we keep a watchful eye on our expectant mothers, making sure we’re ready when the first babies of the season are born.    

Photograph of our cattle

Of course, throughout the winter (and throughout the year!) we keep a close eye on all our animals, monitoring for any signs of illness, injury, or discomfort. Even healthy animals get sick from time to time, just as humans do, so the Ag Team routinely checks for possible issues. Symptoms such as droopy ears, lethargy, weight loss, and isolation, can all be subtle, but important, clues that something may be wrong, and when any of these signs are observed, the Ag Team acts swiftly to get the animal whatever help it needs.    

Overall, our livestock are hardy and handle the winter with ease. As their caretakers, it’s our job to make sure they have all the resources they need, and the Ag Team works tirelessly to keep Conner Prairie’s livestock warm, safe, and healthy all year long.

So, if you explore Conner Prairie during A Merry Prairie Holiday, or visit our exciting Indoor Experiences Areas through the winter, you can know that the livestock are staying warm and content and will be excited to see you again next spring!

Watch this video to hear from Stephanie about winter prep!
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About the Author

Stephanie Buchanan is the Director of Agriculture Initiatives.  When she’s not at Conner Prairie, she enjoys hiking, kayaking, running, and reenacting – anything to get outside!