November 7, 2018


Elizabeth Hall, Bureau of Regulatory Services

Autumn is a season that brings many changes to Connecticut. The shorter days bring us our beautiful foliage, fresh cider, and all of the wonderful winter-keeping vegetables.

It is also a time however, for making the necessary plans and preparations to ensure that livestock and poultry have access to adequate water, feed, and protection from the cold temperatures to not just survive but actually thrive during the winter months.

The shorter days also trigger the beginning of winter hair growth in most livestock species including horses. Most farmers recognize the need to begin to increase supplemental feedings to maintain good body condition in their stock. Assessing an animalís current body condition serves as a valuable tool in predicting what nutritional changes may be needed to maintain or even increase an animalís weight, if warranted, during the cold weather.

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is a numerical scoring system which is used as a management tool to estimate energy reserves in the form of fat and muscle of livestock, and to evaluate their nutritional status. Body condition affects the amount and type of winter-feed supplements that will be required to maintain current body condition, and influences subsequent growth, reproduction, milk production, and life span. Scores are subjectively assigned, ranging from one for severely emaciated to five for very obese, with a BCS in the middle range considered as optimum. 

The Henneke Body Condition Scoring System, the one most recognized for use in horses, utilizes a one through nine score with a score of five indicating ideal body condition.

A BCS score can be determined and assigned by visual appraisal, but palpation of the animal's condition may be more reliable especially for animals with thick hair coats.  Long, dark colored hair can make an accurate visual assessment difficult. 

Low BCS and significant weight loss may be an indicator of compromised welfare.  Low scoring animals are more prone to disease and parasitism.

Livestock, with adequate body condition and nutritional level, can adapt to a wide range of thermal conditions. Protection from extreme conditions should be available when those conditions create a risk to the welfare of the animals. This can be provided by natural or manmade structures.

Evaluation, placement, and proper bedding management of your shelter are important. Some stands of trees or ravines can provide protection from the wind; however, each pasture is unique. Buildings and tree lines can also act as a funnel and increase the wind speed. These situations are less than ideal especially if the animals are in wet, muddy conditions with no dry areas available.

Heat and cold stress are influenced by various environmental conditions such as air temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed. Certain animal factors such as breed, age, coat color, body condition, and stocking density can also contribute to just how cold the animals feelóthis is called cold stress.

The thickness of the animalís coat, and if the coat is wet or dry, effects the insulation value of the coat. A wet coat increases heat loss up to as much as 40 percent. This causes the animal to burn its own energy to maintain body temperature.

The temperature at which an animal begins to use additional energy is called the lower critical temperature (LCT). The LCT varies depending on both the severity of the environmental conditions and the individual animalís factors. The lower the critical temperature, the higher energy requirements are for the animal. Indications of cold stress include abnormal posture, shivering, and huddling.

During extreme cold weather conditions, livestock caregivers need to provide adequate feed and ample supply of water. When water is restricted, feed intake will also be reduced. 

The following is an estimate of the gallons of water that the various species will consume daily: cattle (7 to 12); goats and sheep (1 to 4); hogs (6 to 8); horses (8 to 12): and llamas (2 to 5).

Providing more hay (good quality) is usually sufficient for horses, cattle, and sheep to weather storms. Increasing the total daily hay amount slowly and steadily in the days leading up to the cold and continuing to feed larger quantities during and following cold weather will help reduce adverse effects of cold stress. 

In some instances, higher energy feeds may be needed to supplement the diet.  However, to avoid digestive and other metabolic problems, the amount of concentrates (grain) added to a ration should start at a low level with a gradual increase over time until the required level is achieved.  

Livestock usually can handle a few cold, miserable days without suffering long term effects. Research has shown a strong link between the body condition of breeding stock and of the offspringís vigor at birth.

The requirements to keep your poultry flock healthy are not that different from their larger counterparts. Poultry need a dry, well-ventilated, but not drafty environment. Just as old farmhouses were oriented, a coop with south facing windows will help maximize the amount of sun exposure during the short days during winter.

The fall is a common time for poultry to go through their annual molt, the time when the shedding and growth of new feathers occur. Feeding a good quality commercial poultry feed is the best sources of balanced nutrition for your birds and will provide the nutrients the birds need during this time.

A watertight roof will help ensure bedding and birds stay dry. A common mistake is to close up or insulate the coop to the point that the air circulation is limited.

Overstocking increases moisture in the environment and reduces the birdsí natural ability to keep warm, just as a wet hair coat on livestock does. Poor ventilation and an accumulation of manure can lead to a buildup of ammonia gas that can cause lung damage and blindness in birds.

Dry wood shavings are the best for litter on the floor; but whatever is used, it needs to stay dry and clean. Baby chicks cannot regulate their body temperature adequately after hatching and need a supplemental heat source.

Birds require adequate space based on their size and characteristicís. Chickens require six to 10 inches of roost space per bird and one nest box for every four to five females. Dr. Michael Darre at the University of Connecticut recommends the following as minimum space requirements for housing poultry:

Type of Bird

Sq. ft. / bird inside

Sq. ft. / bird outside runs

Bantam Chicken



Laying Hens



Large Chickens
















As is the case with large livestock, access to adequate clean water is essential in the winter and some poultry may consume up to one gallon daily. To keep waterers from freezing there are heated base units that waterers can sit on. A submersible fish tank heater can be used for bucket waterers with nipples.

There are many online resources available to help guide livestock and poultry caregivers on body condition scoring and cold stress. A local veterinarian, along with feed and extension specialists, are likely the best sources for advice to help evaluate feed rations and provide recommendations that will prevent the economic losses due to low body condition.