Friday, November 5, 2010

Hay there

Sheep eke grass and eat apples last fall

I've been spending time with the sheep, watching their feeding habits. There are inherent trade-offs between winter confinement needs and summer grazing in any livestock operation, and our operation is not made easier to figure out by being of such tiny scale.

This is the very tail end of the grazing season here in Maine. The sheep are more and more confined to two paddocks. The non-breeding half of the flock, this year's ewe lambs and the three retired ewes, are in the North Paddock. The four breeding ewes and the ram are in the Back Forty. They only get moved on occasion, particularly to eat apples, of which a few remain on a handful of our many trees.

It would be better for the grass to have them all in one small spot, a sacrifice area, close by their winter shelter which is the barn, but we don't have the fences for that yet, nor the money to buy them yet, and I haven't seen a huge need to provide them sooner rather than later.

In any case we need to have these two groups, not one. We prefer not to breed yearling ewe-lambs. We notice that they don't fill out fully until the fall of their second year, and so although they can be bred the fall of their first year, we don't allow this. This means we need more space than we otherwise would each fall. We would either need two sacrifice areas, and two substantial winter shelters, or we have to accept some damage to one of our paddocks.

The grass has long stopped growing in all our paddocks, and any graze that can be used is highly unlikely to recover before spring, so if the sheep find grass at all, it has to be from an area they overlooked before. They spend considerable amounts of time wandering their paddocks looking for such areas. And the graze gets reduced to a very thin layer indeed.

High pressure. Not optimal.

We don't allow this to happen in the spring. Then, with the ram gone and lambs coming, we do confine them yet further to the North Paddock, allowing the Back Forty to grow a thick sward before it gets used again. And I do notice they finish up a lot of weeds and previously unpalatable plants this time of the year. But still, it bothers me that this, our largest paddock, gets so much hammer.

Since this area has a lot of deciduous trees and legumes, fertility doesn't seem to be a huge problem yet. It grows back fairly well each year. But it won't do so forever.

If I had a few extra hundred dollars to spend on fences, I would, but at this point in our married life, a few hundred dollars would go towards an additional trip to Britain to see my ailing mother in hospital, not the fences. The fences will have to wait.

Hay, on the other hand, is abundant this year in Maine, if of uneven quality as always. The other day, I counted just under 200 bales in our barn. But I also sorted it by quality, and have been experimenting with feeding the different kinds to see how best to use it.

We have about 20 bales of thick brown stemmy stuff that the sheep will eat only if there's nothing else to eat. That stuff is getting used for pig bedding. If there's any left this winter it will be used for sheep bedding. But we'll need some eating hay to go with it.

We have 120 bales of two-year old hay that they will eat fairly happily.

The 30 bales I just bought last week from one of our local Amishmen don't seem to interest them very much at all so far. There's a lot of red-top in there, which I'm guessing is why. We'll have to mix this in with better stuff.

Finally, I just used the last of about 20 bales of this year's hay from a different Amish farm that I thought were put up too soon. And they probably were shaved pretty close, in terms of moisture content. I expected them to mold. But they were also packed very tight, which seems to compensate a little, and so they haven't molded yet.

And the sheep are eating this very much more eagerly than any other kind.

These are 80 pound bales. They cost more than any other hay we've bought this year, at $3 a bale, but we get 20 pounds more, and it all gets eaten.

So I plan to go back to that farm and get another 30 or 40 bales. One bale of middle quality hay feeds our flock for a day in winter. The way we feed, what the sheep don't eat becomes bedding, which is piled up as deep bedding and becomes compost. We expect, and need, some waste of fodder to make bedding. This isn't a waste of money because straw is hard to come by and expensive in our region.

There has to be some bedding hay and some eating hay given each day, so if I get a few more of these very high quality 80 pound bales, I'll be able to make best use of any lower quality bales remaining by mixing the two.

What a lot of thought, and finessing of variables, particularly nutrition, soil fertility, cost, breeding, bedding and manure management, has to go into the care of a tiny flock of sheep!

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