Winter Warming

Winter can be an unpredictable season in Iowa. From blue skies to blizzards and everything in between, it can be tough to know just what to wear some days to keep warm.  People can easily change their clothes, though, to match the weather.


The farm animals at the museum can’t put on a winter jacket and a stocking hat when it’s especially cold or a light sweater when it’s mild, and they certainly can’t come inside the house when it’s just too cold. So, what do they do instead to deal with Iowa’s unpredictable winter weather?


The horses and cows grow long, thick, shaggy winter hair when it starts to cool down in the fall. This hair growth doesn’t actually have anything to do with temperature, though.  It has to do with how many hours of sunlight there are each day, known as a photoperiod.  As the photoperiod shortens, the horses and cows start growing their hair to get ready for cooler temperatures.


Horses and cows use this thick winter fur to trap a layer of air against their skin, which is slowly warmed by their body heat. The hair also scatters light, which may help insulate the animals. As long as they have shelter from north winds, they are comfortable outside, and they enjoy sunning themselves whenever possible.

We cut the wool off our sheep (a process called shearing) at the start of each summer. They spend the whole summer and fall growing new wool, instead of waiting for days to get shorter like the horses and cows. By the time they need it in the winter, they have their thick wool coats back to keep them warm until spring.

All of the animals also have to use more energy to keep warm, just like how shivering takes more work than standing still. They all have to eat more food to make up for the extra energy they spend staying warm.

Since the pigs don’t have a thick outer layer of fur, wool, or feathers like the other animals, they have to create a thick inner layer of fat to help insulate their bodies. To create this layer of fat, they have to eat even more food than the other animals.


The pigs also enjoy being given a few extra whole bales of straw, which they rip up and rearrange to create their own nests inside the hog house. They cuddle up tight against each other in these nests to share body heat. Pigs also enjoy sunning themselves, even on cold sunny days.


New Arrivals!

Hello Everyone! Farmer Mike here! Winter is finally over and I am happy to say we have some new additions to the barnyards at Living History Farms this spring.

Hank as a babyLilly the 1900 Farm milk cow had her calf on March 5. We had hoped she would wait for warmer weather.  It was the coldest night of the month with the overnight low of 2 degrees! Luckily, the day was sunny and the temperature warmed up. Mother and baby are doing fine. Lilly can produce over 4 gallons of milk a day, far more than the calf needs, so we have begun milking her for some of our programs.


Lilly and her calf are a breed, or type of cattle, called Shorthorn. Shorthorn cattle can be just red or just white but most often they are red and white spotted. Most shorthorns have horns—both boys and girls. Lily is special though; she is a polled cow. Animals who naturally do not grow horns are “polled”. She has passed that trait to her calf.

cattle 1900

When you visit the museum you will see shorthorn cattle at the 1850 Pioneer Farm and the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm. The 1850 Farm cattle have horns, but the 1900 Farm cattle happen to be polled.shorthorn

In the 1800s, farmers wanted to make more money from their livestock and they began to raise specific breeds that were good at giving milk or had good meat. Angus and Herefords are special breeds that give good meat, but these breeds don’t make good milk cows. Jerseys and Guernsey’s give lots of milk but they aren’t the best beef producers. The Shorthorn was the most common breed in Iowa in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The Shorthorn was popular because it was very good at all the jobs cattle had on a farm. They were good milk producers, good beef producers, and in pioneer times they made good oxen. Martin Flynn, the man who built the mansion at our museum, raised famous Shorthorns. Men came from all over the country to buy cattle at the Walnut Hill Farm.

1891 Sale Ad

Other additions are lots of lambs! Sheep usually have twins, sometimes single lambs, and rarely triplets. This year our sheep have had a single lamb, two sets of twins, and one set of triplets so far! The first lamb came way back in December. Here’s the winter lamb with Farmer Kelly.lamb with Kelly

The first twins arrived March 11, with a set of triplets not long after. We had another set of twins this past week.  twin lambs and other sheep

Our adult sheep are pretty round and shaggy right now. Their wool is thick from keeping them warm all winter. Sheep are sheared, or get a haircut, once a year in the spring.

lambs and momWe are hoping to shear our sheep in May. Each of our adult sheep will give 8 to 10 pounds of wool. How much is ten pounds? Three 2-liter bottles of soda weigh ten pounds. A bowling ball often weighs about ten pounds. That’s heavy wool! After the wool is washed and the dirt and oils come out, the wool will weigh less than half that amount. The fibers (or individual hairs) of the wool are 2 inches long or more depending on the sheep. Sheep were usually kept for their wool and sometimes for meat. Our sheep are mixed breeds as was common in Pioneer Iowa. lamb and mom feeding

Training New Oxen

oxen and wagonIf you’ve visited our 1850 Farm at the museum, you’ve likely encountered our oxen – Beau and Luke. But, what is an ox? Is it a special breed or species? Nope! An ox is just a cow – one that has been trained to work as a draft animal.

So what makes an ox an ox?

Oxen are usually male cattle. They go through extensive training starting when they are very young to teach them how to pull heavy loads and listen to their human handlers – called drovers or teamsters. They don’t actually earn the title of “ox” until they have been through four years of this training! Until then, the calves are often called “working steers”.

calves in halterTraining starts when they are only a few weeks old, as they learn to be comfortable around people. The first step in an ox’s training doesn’t involve any work at all, but there is still a lot for the young calves to learn. They are taught to wear a halter and how to walk calmly on a lead rope. They learn that humans bring yummy food and soothing brushes and petting. Soon they look forward to seeing their teamsters because of the good things those people bring and do for them. calves and kelly

When they are a few months old, the calves are taught to wear their first yoke. The yoke is the piece of wood that goes across their necks and is traditionally held on with bent pieces of wood called bows. The first yoke is very small, and a team may go through a dozen or more incrementally larger yokes until they are full grown.


Besides walking alongside their teamster and wearing a yoke, the calves must learn some commands. The calves are taught words that tell them to go forward, turn left and right, stop, and back up. Here are those words, and their meanings:

oxen“Step Up” – go forward

“Gee” – turn right

“Haw” – turn left

“Whoa” – stop

“Back” – back up

Take a look at our youngest “working steers” learning the ropes! These young steers were born at the 1850 Pioneer Farm during the summer of 2014 and are just beginning their ox training!


Keeping Warm on the Farm!

horses in snow

It has been a cold January so far at Living History Farms! Many people ask how our horses, cows, sheep, and other farm animals stay warm when it is really cold outside. Farm animals do a great job at keeping warm with a little help from their farmers. In the winter time, horses, cattle, and sheep grow their own winter coats. As days get shorter, horses and cows grow long, coarse hair all over their bodies. The animals can fluff up these long hairs when they are cold. The long hair traps warm air against their bodies and helps to keep them warm. The horses and cows look very shaggy right now in their long winter coats!

Horses and cattle do need shelter from the wind and wet snow. When their hair gets wet, it is harder for the hair to trap warm air around them. At Living History Farms, there are sheds for the animals to go into when the wind is strong or it’s snowing hard.

Sheep also have their own winter coats. Sheep are covered in a fiber called wool. The matted wool strands in a sheep’s coat are very strong and thick. The wool strands create pockets of warm air around the sheep’s body. Wool can also soak in lots of water before it reaches the sheep’s skin, helping to keep them warm even when it’s raining or snowing.


All of our farm animals get lots of food that is good for them in the winter. Good food makes their body strong and gives them energy to keep warm. Pigs often eat more in winter when it is very cold. The work of eating can keep them warm too! When animals like horses and cattle eat oats and hay, their stomachs give off heat as they digest the food.


Pigs and chickens have their own houses to protect themselves from the cold. Museum farmers put hay in these houses for the animals in case they want to snuggle in and keep warm.

How about you, LHF Kids? Do the animals at your house like to be outside when it’s cold? Do they play in the snow? What do you do to keep them warm and safe?