A farm’s hay quota must be calculated long before the feed is needed. In the early years — with only three sheep — we didn’t use much hay, so locating enough and getting it into our barn was not a big issue . We could just make arrangements in fall. Now with one hundred sheep in our fields, it is a much bigger issue. Thankfully, we have established a relationship with a local hay producer, and he does his best to provide our annual hay needs. He has even shifted his production to reflect the proportions of the different hays we use.

Such a relationship is a blessing, since it means that I don’t have to scrounge every year. Long gone are the days of searching for a place to buy our hay and then negotiating a price that includes delivery and help with stacking the bales. Yet there is still work to be done. I must know how much hay I will need, and that isn’t always an easy thing to project. Calculating the flock’s needs comes down to a bit of fortune-telling and a lot of math. Because I’ve been caught short in the spring after a harsh winter and not enough hay, I need to make sure that I buy enough for the entire hay-feeding season. Yet buying more than we need ties up funds that could be better used in other places.

I likely go a bit overboard with my calculations, since I calculate our hay needs in three different ways. I always count each llama as two sheep to simplify things a bit (since their weight is about double one of our adult ewes). In the first method, I take the number of sheep we will overwinter and multiply that number by 20 bales. This first calculation is a very rough estimate of the number of bales we will need for the winter. If I think we’ll have a long winter, based on predictions, I will use 22 bales instead — this is where the fortune-telling comes in. The total won’t tell me how much alfalfa I will need compared to grass, but it does give me a sense of the total number of bales we will likely need.

Next I look at what we actually used last year. I know how many bales of grass and of alfalfa we put into our barns last summer, and I know how many sheep I kept over the winter. For this year’s second calculation, I take the number of last year’s grass hay bales and divide by the number of sheep, then multiply that result by the number of sheep I expect to keep this winter. I do the same with alfalfa bales, and then I set these two totals aside to compare to my third calculation.

Finally, I do a detailed allotment of hay for the winter. Across the top of the page, I list each month and how many days of that month I expect to feed hay. I usually plan on beginning in mid-October and feeding until mid-April. Sometimes we start later or end sooner, but again, I would rather have too much than not enough. I divide the flock into nutritional groups: for October and November, I plan on the ewe lambs (plus their llama, counting as two) getting about 3 pounds of alfalfa hay per day, and the adult ewes (plus one llama, again counting as two) getting 4 pounds of grass hay per day. I figure the ram lambs (and their llama x2) at about 3 pounds daily, and the adult rams (and their llama x2) at 5 pounds. The ram lambs can get alfalfa if the price is good, but they will also do just fine on grass hay; the adult rams are always allotted grass hay, since they will get fat on alfalfa. Using those rations, I figure how many bales of each type of hay I will feed out per day to each group and then how many bales of each type as totals for the month.

We ultrasound our ewes in early December, so the nutritional groups will change at that point. I know that about 2/3 of our ewe lambs will breed and go into the high-nutrition (alfalfa) group, as will about 1/3 of the adult ewes. The rest will continue on grass hay until the end of January. Again, I figure out the number of bales I will feed out each day to each group: high-nutrition ewes are increased to 5 lbs per day (alfalfa), low-nutrition ewes are increased to 5 lbs per day (grass), ram lambs are increased to 4 pounds per day (grass or alfalfa), and rams continue their previous ration of grass. I then multiply each set of rations by the number of days in the month to assess the number of bales of alfalfa and grass that I will need.

In February all of our ewes shift to alfalfa for the duration of the hay-feeding season. Since they begin delivering their lambs in mid-February, I know that some of the girls will be lactating by the end of the month, so I increase their ration to about 6 pounds per ewe. I also begin to add in one bale per day of alfalfa for the new lambs’ creep area. With these changes, I continue the same calculations for the months of February, March and half of April. I then add all the alfalfa bales for each month together to get the total number we will likely require for the year. I do the same for the grass bales.

I compare the number of bales listed for each of my three methods and choose the largest number for the actual order from our hay supplier. Then I pray that our winter doesn’t last too long, that we have no extra mouths to feed, and that I haven’t made a multiplication error in my calculations. Assessing hay needs is part fortune-telling and a lot of math — and it’s easy to make errors in either one.