Even though we have been having record setting heat lately, it is September - a berrr month as Farm Buddy would say. Cold weather will be here before we know it. Here in the northeast, it is not far from anyone's mind. Everyone is scrambling to make sure that hay barns are full, that there is enough firewood/oil/propane and we are looking around to see what needs to be done before the snow comes.
With all these preparations for winter under way, the thought always pops up: are the animals ready for winter? This is the time of year that every magazine has list of winter tips for your horse or dog and I hope everyone knows most of them. There is one little tip that never seems to get mentioned though that can have a big impact on how ready your four legged friends who live outside will be for winter:
Turn the lights out.
This is probably one of the most important and simplest things that you can do to help your livestock prepare for winter. The thing that controls how much of a coat an animal grows and when to grow it is the amount of daylight they are exposed to. A good winter coat gets its start in late summer and takes most of the Fall to develop. Artificial lights can have a huge impact on this process.
Horses shed their coats twice a year. It is a gradual process that generally starts about mid February when some of the outer guard hairs start dropping off. It builds up slowly as the new summer coat comes in until they are shedding by the handful in April.
Starting about mid July, they start the process all over again as they begin shedding their summer coats. It is much less dramatic and they still look cool and sleek, but the hair just growing in right now will be thick winter fuzz in another couple of months.
All of this is controlled by light. Specifically, the amount of light that they are exposed to during the day. It is the shortening of the day that triggers not only when they will start to shed out their summer coat and begin growing a winter coat, but also how much coat they grow, which is why horses in the south grow much less winter fur than horses in the north do.
The shorter days are also what triggers mares to stop coming into heat. They generally don't cycle in the winter, but they will if kept under lights. Show and breeding barns use this to manipulate breeding cycles and hair growth.
Donkeys have a very different hair coat and shedding pattern, but light is just as important (as it is for cattle, goats, etc). In the winter, they grow a very thick double coat consisting of a super soft, fluffy under coat with a long, coarse outer coat. They lack the skin oils that horses have so their coat is not water proof, which is why a dry barn is so important to them. In the Spring, they shed out the coarse, outer coat, but they hold onto the fluffy inner fuzz far into the summer. They do this because that fluf doesn't shed until they have new growth to take its place. It is usually at least July before they begin to grow a new coat and they finally loose that fluff. It takes even longer for the babies, which is why donkey babies may need blankets. They may not have enough time to be ready for the cold . That new coat that begins in July or August will be their winter wardrobe later on.
If you want to do something simple, easy and that even saves you money that will also help your animals weather the coming cold, just turn out the lights. They all have excellent night vision and they don't need it. They do need a good, healthy coat.