At County Fair Farm in Jefferson, Andy Williamson is spending more time than usual this week lugging water to his small herds of pigs and cows and flock of chickens.
With high temperature records breaking around Maine, the farm’s critters need every drop of fresh, cool water Williamson can provide.
“Yesterday I watered my sows and boars three times,” Williamson said Thursday morning. “I watered them at 10 last night, and they drank right up.”
Heat and hazardous weather advisories have been posted across the state most of the week in Maine with temperature highs in the low 90s and the air feeling closer to 95 degrees with high humidity.
Those conditions are predicted to last throughout the week but could reach 100 degrees, according to the National Weather Service, before a cold front moves through Maine late Friday bringing temperature down to the 70s, with less humid air across much of the state.
Water and shade are key
Access to fresh water and shade during the hotter days of summer are key to a farm animal’s comfort and safety, according to Matthew Randall, agricultural compliance inspector supervisor with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
“It really comes down to those two things,” Randall said. “Obviously [the animals] need good shade or shelter and good, clean drinking water.”
That shade does not necessarily need to be manmade, Randall said.
“Animals do well under natural shade providers like trees,” he said. “We don’t expect farmers to build some sort of great building, but [the animals] do need something that will provide shade. If it’s not a constructed building, it needs to be natural and species appropriate.”
At Bouchard Family Farm in Fort Kent, Janice Bouchard on Thursday said her husband Joey was working to reconfigure fencing so the farm’s beef cattle have continued access to the natural shade provided by wooded areas on the farm.
“We have a small quonset where the water is,” Janice Bouchard said. “Joe made a ‘pool’ area for the cows, but they really want to be in the woods where there is shade.”
Livestock often do what they can to cool themselves off, Randall said, including feeding at night and laying low during the day’s heat.
Like people, farm animals such as cows, pigs, goats, horses or poultry can find themselves in severe heat distress if they are denied that shade and water
“If things get bad enough, the animals will start to pant, and that is extreme,” Randall said. “In the worst case, they will go down.”
If that happens, he said, don’t even try to lead the animal to water.
“You want to get the water to them so they don’t have to walk,” Randall said. “Form a bucket brigade, walk the water to them, whatever it takes.”
Getting an overheated animal under shade is also important, Randall said, and again that may mean bringing it to the critter.
“If you can’t move it to shade because they are in a situation they may not even make it, set up a temporary tent over the animal,” he said. “If you can, hosing it down with a mist of cool water can also help.”
Fiber-producing animals such as sheep should have been shorn weeks ago, Randall said.
“Most animals have a summer coat versus a winter coat, and it’s important for animals that produce fiber be shorn down,” he said, “You would not want these animals in these kinds of temperatures with the same wool coat as they had going last fall or winter.”
Keep that water flowing
“Water is even more critical if it is an extended period of hot weather and no rain,” Randall said. “That is because there is not as much moisture in the grass and animals will start to drink more, because there is less moistures in their feed.”
Water sources can also dry up, thanks to long periods of heat and no rain.
“People should not take for granted water sources,” Randall said. “You need to be vigilant and check them often.”
Six months ago, the issue was those sources freezing solid, he said. Now the problem is they can dry up or become murky and fetid.
“You need to take the time to make sure those sources are full and fresh,” Randall said. “No one likes to waste money by leaving water running, but sometimes you may just have to leave a hose running [into a water source] and understand sometimes it’s OK to make a little mud.”
The animals will tell you if the water has become stale or otherwise undrinkable, Randall said.
“If they are not consuming the water, that tells you something,” he said. “Kick the container over, empty it and clean them out.”
Back on County Fair Farm, Williamson noted his adult pigs tend to help out in that regard — whether he wants them to or not.
“They like to tip the water containers over when I fill them,” Williamson said. “They like to make themselves a wallow and I just hope they will drink before they tip it over, [and] that’s why I’ll go out and water again today.”
It means Williamson himself is going to work up a bit of a sweat since, while there is a hose to where his cows are, he lugs the water by hand to the pigs and chickens in buckets.
“It does mean more work for me,” he said with a chuckle. “I just get hot — hot and miserable.”
Like their animals, farmers need to take extra time and care in hot weather by drinking lots of fluids to stay hydrated, limit time out in the sun as much as practical given the nature of farm chores and move immediately to a cooler location if starting to get dangerously overheated.
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