Because of Iowa’s climate and the limited acreage that we have for our flock, our sheep must eat harvested forage in the form of hay for about six months of every year. During that time of year, I haul hundreds of pounds of hay each day, moving it from our hay storage areas to the wooden feeders where our sheep pick through the bales. The next day, I clean out the bits that the flock found to be inedible and repeat the process. Once all of the bales have been fed out for the day, I take a few moments to enjoy that feeling of satisfaction that comes with knowing that all of our sheep are well – that I have looked over the flock and concluded that all are happy and healthy, and that their needs have been met for another day.
Unlike most years, this year our sheep were pulled in off of our fields at weaning in response to the residual parasite issues that we anticipated after last year’s hot and wet growing season. They got in about three weeks of good grazing in two pastures that will now remain vacant until next year. I carefully counted my hay bales and purchased hundreds more to make it possible to keep our sheep in and around the barns until about July 1, when the remainder of our fields would be clean of parasites and their larvae. As a result, I’m still feeding out hay to the flock – even now in mid-June – after a short three-week break while they grazed.
I find it a bit odd, however, that I don’t get that same feeling of satisfaction after feeding them now. Normally, when I visit the flock for my daily welfare checks out in our pastures during the growing season, I watch our lambs gambol and play, and the ewes ripping up big mouthfuls of grass, and that feeling is there. The flock is well and happy, and as a result, so am I. When I feed out their bales beginning in fall and continuing through the winter months, my pause at the end of feeding to check over the flock brings up that same familiar feeling, too. Yet, this year when I am hauling hay for them inside my barns prior to their grazing restarting in a couple of weeks, I get no such feeling of satisfaction – and I honestly am a bit surprised.
For many days now, I’ve been trying to figure out why that familiar feeling has left me – and I can only think of one thing: I know my flock is not as happy as they could be if they were out on pasture. Somewhere deep inside, I know that sheep are meant to graze and wander – and right now, that isn’t happening. Oh, sure, many people keep sheep “dry-lotted” – kept on concrete or in a barn or on a small piece of land that is eventually so eaten down that all nutrition must come from hay that is hauled in. This is not an unusual thing in this industry – but it is for me and my flock! My sheep normally get fresh air and good exercise as they wander their pastures, trying to find just the right combination of plants to make their days great. After they have eaten and the sun begins to slip low in the western sky, they celebrate the day, running up and down manure piles or hopping onto and off of the rock pile or tree stumps – anything to release the joy that has built up inside!
Anyone coming to see our flock would look out across their space in the barn and see what appears to be a happy, healthy flock – and they are. Yet, I know that on the day that I open the panels and release them into the pastures to once again graze in the sunshine, lifting their faces to the summer breeze – well, that day will be the beginning of true happiness for my ovine friends! And honestly, that day just can’t come soon enough for me!