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.



twin lambs and other sheepHey, remember these little guys? Back in April, we talked about all the lambs born at Living History Farms this spring. You should see them now! They have grown a lot and all the sheep are a lot less shaggy. In May, all of our sheep got their hair cut. Sheep have special hair called wool. During the winter, the sheep’s wool grows very thick to keep the sheep warm. The sheep’s wool is also full of greasy oil called lanolin. It helps the wool shed water and keeps the sheep dry.

winter sheep

In the spring, farmers cut the wool off of the sheep to keep them cool in the summer. Cutting the wool off is called shearing. A shearer, the person doing the cutting, can sometimes get the wool off the sheep in one whole piece. That piece of wool is called a fleece.

In the 1850s, the wool was cut off with a sharp scissor-like tool called shears. Later, mechanical clippers—a lot like the ones you might see at a hairdresser now—were used to get the fleece off. These clippers did not run on electricity. Instead, someone had to crank a wheel to make the clippers move. Shearing was a two person job!

clippersThis photo is of a famous pair of clippers given to a champion sheep shearer in 1892 in Australia (photo: Southeby’s Australia.)

The video below shows Sheep Shearer Ray shearing the fleece off of a Living History Farms ewe. See his helper? Turning that crank can be a tiring job! Ray thought the whole fleece might weigh 6 or 7 pounds. This was a small ewe. It is pretty common to get 8 or 10 pounds of wool from a large ewe.

A long time ago, Pioneer farmers might sell the fleece to a woolen mill. The woolen mill factory would make thread and weave clothing from the wool. In 1850, farmers could sell one pound of wool for 50 cents. How much money would 6 lbs. of wool make for the farmer? A Pioneer farmer might also keep part of the fleece and spin the wool fibers into yarn to make hats and socks and mittens.

pioneer with woolen mittens and hat

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?