We all grow up with the stories or observation of animals putting away food for the winter — squirrels burying nuts throughout the yard, chipmunks storing nuts in their tunnels or in holes of trees, moles stockpiling earthworms, foxes storing food in their dens — each of them preparing for the cold, frozen world of winter when there will be little food available. Because we, too, must consider the future needs of our flock once the growing season ends, we begin in mid-summer to calculate and recalculate the anticipated nutritional needs of our animals through the cold months of the year.
The calculations become more firm towards the end of the summer, when we know how many sheep we’ll be feeding. Once the hay arrives, there is no one place that can store all that we need, so we separate it out based on the time of year it will be fed. The grass hay is stuffed into the old storage barn, taking up the entire 40′ x 24′ loft all the way to the rafters and both of the 12′ x 15′ stalls on the west end to a height of 10′. That will be sufficient to feed our rams throughout the winter and will also take care of the early hay needs of those pregnant ewes carrying singles and twins. Most of the eighteen tons of grass hay will be fed out by late January, leaving only the three-and-a-half tons the boys will need for the last few months of cold weather before the fields rejuvenate in spring. The ewes, on the other hand, will shift to alfalfa hay at that time, which is stored in the Sheep Barn for late gestation and lactation feeding.
We start feeding alfalfa in the fall only to the marked ewe lambs and those ewes who typically give us triplets (or more). They will need all the nutrition they can get, so we hit them early with the alfalfa. Because the group is relatively small and the ewe lambs eat so little compared to an adult, the alfalfa shrinks slowly at first, barely noticeable from week to week throughout the fall. Once we ultrasound our girls, we add any other ewes who scanned with triplets, and the alfalfa typically begins to move a bit more quickly. In comparison with the grass hay, however, the alfalfa hay is still fed out very slowly — and that’s a good thing, since we’ll need a lot of alfalfa once lambing is imminent.
Although all of our hay calculations are important, none is as critical as figuring out that alfalfa hay. If I am short of grass hay, I can always feed out some of the alfalfa. The sheep would get more protein than necessary, but they’d be happy with that. By late January, all our bred ewes are on alfalfa hay for late gestation and lactation, and we begin to burn through it much more quickly. We begin feeding it out in late January at a rate of about five bales a day, and then increase as the ewes begin to deliver their lambs. We soon find ourselves feeding six bales a day, and then add the creep for young lambs and more for the ewes, bringing us to about eight bales a day in March and early April. We start the season with over 20 tons of alfalfa in our Sheep Barn; but if I miscalculate, by late spring I’ll have a barn full of hungry lactating ewes and baby lambs, and no hay to be found! This is a dire situation at a time of year during which there are few options. By that late in the season, most people have used up their hay, and there is little to be found for purchase. It is a situation I dread each and every year as we watch our alfalfa piles dwindle at a rapid rate. This past year, I had only one single bale left at the end of the hay-feeding season!
But at this point, all of that worry can wait until spring. For now, there is nothing quite so satisfying as having the hay and grain stockpiled in our barns for winter. I no longer worry that the hay wagons won’t be able to deliver the hay that we so desperately need or that someone else will buy up my hay from our source. No, it is all there, safely stored in the barns. Every time I enter either one of our barns, the wonderful scent of cut hay surrounds me, reminding me that for the time being, our barns are bursting and I needn’t worry about the coming weeks. Even if it snows tomorrow, the feed is here — forty tons of it in all — and our flock will be fine. And that is a very satisfying feeling, indeed!