Winter’s chill

Yesterday was an incredibly mild day for November in Iowa, with highs in the 70s. Unbelievably, I stained our front porch without worry of freezing nighttime temperatures. This lovely weather does have to end, however — Iowa is notorious for its cold winter winds that barrel across the plains — and today is the day for the bottom to fall out of the lovely temps we have enjoyed thus far. The forecast low on Sunday morning — less than 40 hours from now — is 20 degrees, a drop of over 50 degrees from yesterday afternoon!

Dropping temperatures don’t impact only my outdoor work; they also greatly impact our flock. Sheep can do well in very cold temperatures — particularly with the heavy fleece that most of our flock currently carries — but there are several considerations to keep in mind. The first is the temperature drop. A drop of thirty degrees or more in only a few days’ time creates perfect conditions for pneumonia. It’s not the cold itself that causes the problem but rather the difference in temperature. This kind of temperature drop causes me to keep my eyes and ears open for signs of illness. Any sheep who is panting without cause or slow to follow the flock, coughing, or looking “off” in any way will be checked for fever and treated accordingly. Fifty degrees is a huge drop and a sign for shepherds to carefully watch for illness.

The second consideration is the cold wind. High winds disturb the insulation quality of the wool that the sheep are carrying, forcing out the warm air normally trapped in the thick wool with cold air brought in by high winds. Sheep don’t need shelter — even during the winter, if they are carrying a reasonable cover of wool — but they do need a windbreak. This can be anything from valleys and protected sides of hills to a structure or makeshift windbreak of plywood tied to stakes in the ground. It needn’t be pretty, just functional! The sheep highest in the flock hierarchy will generally get spots nearest the windbreak and be best protected from the wind, while those lowest in the flock (like the lambs and the old ewes) will usually be relegated to the outer fringes where there is less protection. Sheep will often lie against other sheep, using their bodies as windbreaks. In order to keep even the smallest and weakest sheep protected from winter’s chill, any windbreak should be large enough to protect the entire group.

The third consideration in cold temperatures and high winds is available feed. Sheep are most comfortable in outdoor temperatures of 25 to 72 degrees. How comfortable they are beyond that depends on how much insulation/wool they carry on their backs and what the conditions are like outside, and this second point can best be gauged by the wind chill — how cold it feels to living creatures (computed by temperature and wind velocity). The windier it is, the colder it feels and the more feed sheep will need to keep themselves warm. As a result, adequate nutrition is imperative when things get cold. The less wool sheep carry, the more feed they will need to keep going.

Our ewes are currently in the Timber, where they have plenty of grazing to help keep warm, and plenty of trees and hills to avoid the winds. Most have plenty of wool to help insulate against the ambient temps. (The two ewe lambs who were sheared in October already have almost an inch of wool!) The rams are currently housed in the ram shelter with plenty of hay to keep them going. Overall, I think the flock is ready for this coming temperature drop and should fare the coming of winter just fine. It’s likely to be me that will have the biggest issue! Our recent mild temperatures have spoiled me, and I’m not sure I want what the weather that is coming. Yet it’s late November, and winter’s cold must eventually arrive. It seems as though this could be it.

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