How Cold is Too Cold for Animals?

In many ways, we follow some relatively old fashioned methods of animal husbandry. For example, a lot of people now use heated barns or other enclosures to protect their animals from winter. Of course, there are a lot of benefits to this approach, such as maintaining productivity during winter and reducing animal stress.

However, there are also disadvantages that you must consider from a self-sufficiency perspective. For example, heating an environment for the animals incurs additional cost that is unlikely to be repaid with additional productivity. In addition, such an approach is harder on the environment because the heat is normally provided by some sort of fossil fuel. Unfortunately, the biggest problem is the effect on the animal. If there is a power outage or similar issue that causes a loss of heat, the animal is going to be adversely affected in a serious manner because it isn’t used to the cold and hasn’t had any time to develop a fat layer. We can put on additional layers of clothing when the heat fails—animals typically don’t have this advantage. Animals also tend to have natural cycles, just as we do. The change in seasons helps keep an animal’s internal clock in sync.

Of course, it gets pretty cool here in Wisconsin. We do winterize the animal cages in various ways. For example, the rabbit cages receive a covering of plastic sheeting over the front to keep the wind at bay and also reduce some heat loss. Likewise, the chicken coop window receives a plastic sheet and the back window is both closed and secured. You can’t make the cages airtight, however, because doing so would trap harmful gasses from animal feces that would eventually prove detrimental to animal health. Even during the winter months, animal cages must have at least a little air movement to promote good health.

During the winter months we also feed the animals food with a higher fat content that provides additional calories to help keep them warm. In most cases, this means adding more corn and oats to the rabbit food and providing them with additional high energy food treats (such as carrot scraps). The chickens receive various types of seeds with their feed, along with high protein sources such as meal worms. This approach follows what happens in nature. The seed heads of plants are exposed above the snow, so animals eat these high energy sources of nutrients during the winter months.

Our chickens love the forage all throughout the year. During the summer months they go out every day unless the weather is absurdly harsh (the weather service is predicting tornadoes). In the winter the chickens only go out on warmer, sunnier days. During the cooler days we keep them inside where they can huddle together to preserve warmth.

Part of our strategy is also to use the natural environment to our advantage. For example, all of the cages and the coop are south facing so that any sunlight tends to warm the interior of the cage or coop. There are times when we open the coop door and feel a surge of warmth come out simply because of the effect of the sun on the interior. So, it’s possible to rely on some level of passive heating to help keep animals warm.

Beside the other measures we take, we ensure we check the animal’s water more regularly during the winter to ensure the animals all have liquid water (not iced over in any way) to drink during much of the day. A good source of high energy/high calorie food and water are both essential to animal health during the winter months. All of our animals drink less during the winter, so giving the animal less water, but filling the water trays more often, is the best strategy to follow.

If the weather were to get terribly cold, we also make provision to keep the animals short term in the garage or basement of our home. Neither area is warm enough to stress the animals, but is warm enough to keep them from getting frostbite (a real problem for chicken combs). What sorts of things do you do to make your animals more comfortable and maintain their health in winter? Let me know at


Moving Heavier Tractors and Cages Safely

It’s important to chicken and rabbit health to move tractors and cages regularly. We don’t keep our chickens and rabbits in a barn because allowing them access to sunshine and fresh air is far healthier. However, it’s harder to keep the tractors and cages clean outside. The manure builds up and ammonia emissions can begin affecting animal health. So, the solution is to move the animal to a new location so it has a clean place to live. You can then allow the manure to compost in place or shovel it up for centralized decomposition. However, moving cages can be hard on the back and you need multiple people to perform the task in many cases. The solution to this problem is to build a dolly specifically designed for the purpose of moving cages.

One of the questions that you might have about the need for a dolly is whether it might be easier to simply add permanent wheels to the cages. There are a number of problems with this approach:


  • Cost: Good cage wheels cost quite a bit and duplicating them over twenty or so cages gets pricey.
  • Maintainability: Anything left outside for an extended period tends to get dirty and to corrode. Keeping permanently mounted wheels functional is difficult.
  • Practicality: Chicken tractors must sit completely on the ground because the open bottomed cages provide protection by keeping predators out.
  • Control: Although rabbit cages are normally raised above ground level, having them on wheels is impractical when your property lacks level land (as our does). The tractor or cage could literally run away with the animals in them if the wheels are permanently mounted.

A problem with most dollies is that they have four wheels. The idea is to keep whatever you’re moving level. However, this approach doesn’t work well with tractors, where you want to raise the cage only enough to move the chickens or cages where you want to transition the rabbits to a moveable state a little at a time. Using a four wheel dolly also places stress on the tractor or cage and can cause the wheels to dig into the soil.

The dolly I created for moving the tractors and cages has only two wheels. The setup automatically adjusts for the current level of the tractor or cage and the wheels don’t dig in as a result. You raise the end of the cage up, slip the dolly underneath, tighten a strap to keep it in place, and you’re ready to go. Here’s how the dolly looks when attached.


As shown in the picture, the dolly is made up of a 2 Ă— 4 that is a little longer than the end of the tractor or cage. There is an eye bolt at each end of the dolly for attaching the strap. The strap is the ratcheting type that has a hook on each end to make for easy attachment. The wheels are 4″ in diameter and swivel in every direction. Here is a better look at the method used to strap the cage down.


Strapping the cage in place is essential and a bungee cord won’t do the trick. The cage will slip off the dolly and you’ll lose control. Make sure you get a good nylon strap with an attached ratcheting device. Otherwise, you risk losing the cage and possibly hurting the animals that you’re trying to move.

Make sure you purchase high quality wheels for your dolly. The wheels should offer four sturdy bolt positions for attaching the wheel to the dolly. In addition, the wheels should come apart for cleaning as shown in this picture.


Notice that the pin holding the wheel bolts in place. Removing the bolt makes it possible to take the wheel completely apart for cleaning so that you can continue to obtain good service from the dolly.

Building two dollies will make it easier for anyone to move a relatively large tractor or cage with ease without doing much lifting at all (except to attach the dolly initially). Let me know your thoughts about tractor and cage movement devices at