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Published: Friday, 7/22/2011 - Updated: 4 years ago

At fairs, on farms and at the racing track, animals take shelter from the heat

Autumn Gilbert, from Erie, Mich., hoses down her pony "Buckwheat" before he gives children rides with other ponies at the Lynda's Pony Rides tent during the Ottawa County Fair in Oak Harbor on July 19, 2011. "Usually [the ponies] dance around and are antsy but since it is so hot they are enjoying [the shower]," Gilbert said. Autumn Gilbert, from Erie, Mich., hoses down her pony "Buckwheat" before he gives children rides with other ponies at the Lynda's Pony Rides tent during the Ottawa County Fair in Oak Harbor on July 19, 2011. "Usually [the ponies] dance around and are antsy but since it is so hot they are enjoying [the shower]," Gilbert said.
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PARADISE, Pa. — Cows don't crank up the air conditioning, pigs can't chill out in a movie theater and chickens won't cannonball into a pool. At farms, fairs and the racetrack, the furry and feathered rely on human caretakers to keep them comfortable.

Such efforts become especially important during potentially fatal hot spells like the one now blanketing much of the country — and different species require tailored touches.

"Having animals now, during this heat wave, is really very taxing," said Martha Livermore, a sheep farmer in Hazen, Pa. "I don't know how the cow people do it."

Through practice and time-tested methods, Don Ranck, who runs the Verdant View Farm in Paradise, keeps his cows cool by spraying water on them.

Shade trees help, and so does a breeze, provided there is one, he said of the 70 dairy cows on his farm, which also includes a bed-and-breakfast, goats, geese, chickens and a donkey.

Keeping animals cool will be critical for farmers and handlers in the next few days. Cows can be a tough spot because they can't pant to release heat. (Chickens can.)

The National Weather Service said more than 1,000 heat records have been set or tied this month nationwide. The service has issued excessive heat warnings for much of the Central and Eastern United States through the weekend and has forecast temperatures above 100 degrees, combined with humidity that could make it feel as hot as 115.

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When it's hot, chickens and cows at pasture know to seek out shade trees and water sources and pigs with access to the outdoors take mud baths to keep cool.

Livermore rubs vinegar on her sheep's ears and legs to cool them off and keep the gnats away. The wool-wearing animals also have shade trees and access to the bank barn — built into the side of a hill, offering natural cooling — though most seem to prefer the outdoors, even when it's very hot, because that's where the grass is.

"We do have to watch them for sunstroke," she said.

Her horses, meanwhile, get hosed down, with wet rags placed under their halters to help reduce body temperature. The horses spend their daylight hours in the barn when it's this hot and get turned out only at night.

At upstate New York's Saratoga Race Course, which opens its summer thoroughbred meet Friday, a full day's racing card has been scrubbed only once — in 2006 — because of heat since the New York Racing Association took over operations in 1955. NYRA President Charles Hayward said Wednesday he anticipates racing will go on Friday, where the temperature is forecast to hit 93 degrees.

A boer goat nuzzles up to a fan inside the sheep barn Thursday at the Warren County Fair in Lebanon, Ohio. A boer goat nuzzles up to a fan inside the sheep barn Thursday at the Warren County Fair in Lebanon, Ohio.

Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, who's trained such equine stars as Easy Goer and Personal Ensign, runs his expensive horses early and knows when to dial it back.

"The main thing is to make sure they have enough electrolytes, water and to watch their skin tone," he said. "I also put salt in the feed, an old trick which makes them drink more water. Otherwise, keeping hoses on them several times during the day, keeping them out of direct sunlight and as cool as possible is the main thing. I went out and bought 12 new fans this morning."

At the Jefferson County Fair in western Pennsylvania, exhibitors are using large fans and plenty of water to cool off about 150 sheep, 85 horses, 80 milk cows, 50 rabbits, 40 pigs and 10 goats.

Animal showings have been rescheduled for the morning and night, though fair livestock chairwoman Lorie Park said it didn't seem to matter what time of day they are held — it's still hot.

"I'm more worried about the animals than I am about myself," she said.

Pigs, she said, are especially susceptible to heat. It's also important to keep a close watch on dairy cows because "if she is heat stressed, she is not going to look her best or milk her best."

So far, Park said, none of the fair animals appeared to be faltering.

Large-scale farms, which face additional challenges when animals are housed in close quarters and unable to naturally cool off, typically use fans and water misting systems to keep animals from overheating.

When those systems break down, it can have tragic consequences. Last week, about 50,000 chickens at a North Carolina farm died after the power went off for 45 minutes and the temperature outside was 98 degrees. A Kansas couple lost 4,300 turkeys, which weighed about 50 pounds apiece and took 26 hours to bury. The temperature in the building, even with fans cooling it, hit 106 degrees. In South Dakota, up to 1,500 head of cattle died across the state from the heat.

Dairy cows may produce less milk if they're overheated, and chickens may stop laying eggs, while cattle kept in feedlots prior to slaughter can be most prone to heat stress because the large expanses of land often lack shade, said Ron Butler, chairman of the animal sciences department at Cornell University in New York.

"Pigs will wallow in water or mud," Butler said. "For dairy cattle, misting systems may be used in barns. Here in New York, fans are very prevalent in barns. They have to be running all the time and positioned so they're blowing right on the animals."

Pigs, cows and chickens on big farms have been bred to grow quickly, so their metabolism has already been compromised, said Gene Baur, president of the animal welfare group Farm Sanctuary.

"That just exacerbates problems when it's hot and they're packed together and generating even more body heat," he said.

In Pennsylvania Dutch country, the Amish — choosy about when it's appropriate to employ modern technology — face special challenges when it's hot.

Amish farmers can use diesel generators to power large fans and tunnel ventilation — similar to swamp coolers — to reduce heat inside buildings that house livestock, and many of their barns are built into hillsides and otherwise positioned to use earth as additional protection, said Gregory Martin, a poultry scientist and educator with Pennsylvania State University Extension in Lancaster.

Amish farmers will give animals more water and do what they can to open up buildings to take advantage of breezes, he said.

Amish farmers also grow or preserve shade trees in strategic positions to provide relief to the animals, and sometimes feed them later in the day so they are not trying to metabolize food — and therefore raising their temperature — when it's hottest.

"Amish and others tend to keep trees along the periphery so they have harborage for the animals to get under when it's really hot," Martin said. "You can almost tell the temperature of the air by watching the animals."

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