Thursday, February 18, 2010

Night checks and bedding systems

I couldn't sleep again -- getting old -- and needing the practice, got up to do another night check.

In the light of the flashlight, sheep always have a wicked case of red-eye --always good for a chuckle. You see their retinas off in the distance, hovering around like ghost-eyes.

The camera flash, however, has a red-eye reduction system, and it seems to work for sheep. I wonder if the manufacturers know this? It could be a good marketing ploy, avoiding red-eye on your late-night sheep pictures.

These ewes have quickly taken to bedding down for the night on the thick pad of hay that built up quickly on the snowy ground, since I started putting bales out for them a few days ago. We've put out six or seven bales, and they've eaten much of it, but since it's in abundance, they pick over it and move it around, leaving the stemmy stuff, eating the nice leafy stuff, and the rest becomes bedding.

This feeding habit of sheep is the key to our indoor deep bedding too. Although otherwise unruly and lazy teenagers, sheep will happily make their own beds. You don't have to spread bedding if you bed the sheep down in the place where they eat. The sheep themselves will do that, covering their own waste. The sheep pen in the barn is now a foot deep in sheep bedding, but the top layers are clean of muck.

Old timers around here and elsewhere used to chop hay up finely before feeding it with hay chopping machines and hay knives, to make it last longer and go further. They'd probably see this kind of deep bedding as wasteful of good fodder, and with chopping and mucking out instead of deep bedding I could feed twice as many sheep easily on the same fodder.

But deep bedding is more comfortable for the animals, and it helps to capture the additional nutrients in manure and urine. The dry brown hay stems will cook off quickly in the compost piles, since they're now covered in sheep urine that filters down from above. The second picture, from two summer's ago, gives an idea of the heat that is generated by this process.

Of course, we turn piglets into the sheep's quarters before we push the bedding out. The piglets will root through the bedding and chop it and aerate it and dung in it. The chickens will help too. Once the pigs and chickens have given it a good going over, then we push it outside with the Kubota compact tractor, pile it up, water it if necessary, and let it cook off.

I noticed that last year, when we had four pigs in the barn instead of two the year before, that this chopping process was much more complete than in previous years. The average stem fiber in our early compost was probably 2-3 inches instead of much larger. And there was much more dung from the pigs in there. I'm hoping that this has killed a lot of the hay seeds. Hay and other weed seeds that survive our compost system have been the Achille's heel of our gardens so far on this farm, and we want to reduce the weeds badly.

Four pigs instead of two, however, became a bit crowded when the pigs were close to full grown, since the total indoor area is about 12 feet by 20, and the outdoor area the same. This is of course a lot more than they would get in commercial feeder pig systems, and they get to root and wallow and eat garden and other food waste, but it still seemed a bit tight.

I'll decide how many pigs to get this year when I see how many weed seeds last year's compost grows in May compared to the year before. If, as I suspect, we get a big reduction, we'll grow three or four pigs again.

Most likely three will be the magic number.

This is just one of our ecological problems right now. The other problem we need to solve is in the fall when the sheep are turned back in to what was the pig's summer quarters. This year we lost a lamb that was meant to be a breed ewe, Polly, to septic arthritis. She got it before she was turned into pig-land, but pigs carry the bacteria that cause it.

Go figure. Is it our system that caused this? Did she get close enough to the pigs, or did we carry the germs around on our shoes from pig-pen to sheep fields, or are they just in the soil to begin?

Any and all are possible answers. Her two sisters who we did keep, Poppy and Penelope, are thriving, so some part of this was unique to Polly. And along those lines, Polly got a mild case of White Muscle Disease -- selenium and vitamin E deficiency -- quite late, in August, before she showed arthritis in November. She was a very quiet and well-mannered ewe-lamb and didn't push very hard for grain. There were nine lambs and the creep feeder was crowded at times. Was the WMD caused because she missed out on some of her share of the bagged lamb starter with the proper mineral additive? Later in the spring when the sheep are on 100% grass, did she perhaps not like the mineral and protein lick that provides selinium and vitamin E?

She was treated for WMD with a BOSE shot followed up with mineral paste and apparently recovered fully, but went on to get the arthritis and didn't recover from that despite a full course of penicillin.

As a scientist I'm supposed to change only one variable at once. As a farmer, I have to consider the whole system and make changes to lots of parts as I go.

Science is easier.

I'm thinking that Polly got arthritis because of general weakness, helped by the WMD, and that if I pay more attention to feeding all the early lambs their share of bagged grain, possibly by adding another creep, and also give them more mineral paste, I won't see much arthritis again.

But the possible three-way trade-off system here might be between more crowded pigs versus better compost/less weeds, versus more arthritis bacteria in the soils.

Off course, last year was also very wet, which contributed to all of this, and the late blight on our tomatoes. And a lot of worry about hay.

Let's hope for a dryer year.

But we'll also keep an sharp eye on the weed seeds, try to decide the right number of pigs, and study and manage carefully the lambs and their bagged feed and other WMD prophylaxis.

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