It seems that whenever I travel to other farms, I learn new things — which is why I ask for a tour even if I’ve been to that farm before. Each shepherd I visit is working to take the best care of their flock, and while taking a tour, we each come across different ideas, ways of doing things, or products that I might want to consider incorporating into our routine at home. My trip east introduced me to cobalt, something I had never heard of in relation to sheep.
I was touring a farm that I visit every summer. They arguably have the largest flock of Romeldale/CVM sheep in the world, so whenever we go east to visit our son and daughter-in-law in North Carolina, we try to stop and say hi to Marie at Marushka Farms in Pennsylvania. There was a lot of new stuff to see this time, since they had built several new buildings and had restructured their pastures and the flow of their farm. As we were standing outside one of the new shelters where the lambs were housed, I noticed a bright blue block in one of the salt feeders. Not recognizing it, I asked Marie and her helper, Robin.
It turns out that it was a cobalt block, which contains both salt and supplemental cobalt for the lambs. What really caught my eye was that the lambs were literally crowding around this block, to which they had constant access. As soon as one lamb left its spot, another took its place. Unlike our typical blocks where the sheep grind off bits with their teeth, this block had been licked — a lot! It was almost totally covered by half-round divots in the top surface where lambs had been repeatedly licking. I was told that the farm had been using them for years and that the sheep loved them.
Once I arrived home, I looked for information online about cobalt and sheep. Since it was being fed free-choice, the lambs could choose between a regular salt block, a salt-and-mineral block, or the cobalt block. Based on what I observed, the lambs preferred the cobalt block. Everything I found online said that cobalt was beneficial in helping sheep resist internal parasites and might also aid production of rumen flora, which would help with B12 production.
However, before I put anything out with my sheep, I wanted to make doubly sure that it would not have a negative impact. I contacted my vet to ask what he thought on two fronts: negative health effects such as toxicity and whether the cobalt might work like copper in the production of fiber. Copper is a necessary trace mineral for fiber production, but it can be lethal in sheep when fed out even in small doses. I have one family line of Romeldales who are still producing banded fleeces — with strips of light/white at intervals along their staples — most likely due to insufficient copper. I suspect that they have a higher requirement for copper than the other lines, and this might be the reason why they are still producing banded fleeces when the others stopped (after we replaced our galvanized waterers). Based on some anecdotal evidence I found online, the cobalt might provide a good substitute for the copper requirement.
This all sounded promising, so I researched what such a block would cost. It turned out to be about $35 delivered to my door (via Amazon.com), so I ordered one. The block is on its way and should be delivered before the weekend.
After much discussion with the vet, we’ve decided to try it out among the lambs. Since I want to determine any changes the block might create among the flock, I’ve decided to weigh all of the lambs before giving them access to the block. From their weights, I’ll be able to see what their Average Daily Gains (ADGs) have been for the past month or two and can then compare that to what we might see after the block is in use. Besides that, I will compare the frequency of deworming to see whether we notice any difference. I will likely also weigh the block weekly to assess whether they are consuming it at a steady rate or whether a heavy usage at first tapers off to minimal usage later. I obviously have many questions about cobalt, and the only way to be sure of the answers is to carefully introduce it to our sheep and see what happens. I will keep you posted on what I find!