Feeding our ewes

Because we were gone for a total of about three of the past six weeks, we’re on a rather unusual-for-us feeding schedule right now, with late-day feeding. Although our sheep have been used to getting their daily ration in the late afternoon or early evening, our farm-sitters had to feed at the tail end of their usual workday. This schedule has been a challenge, because by late afternoon or early evening, I’m tired and ready for the day to end. The last thing I want to do is throw hay bales into feeders, but I’ve maintained this schedule because shearing is this coming weekend — and the connection there might be of interest to you.

Sheep can be fed on several different schedules, at the discretion of the shepherd. We used to feed twice a day in the early years, until I read a study that sheep fed only once daily were healthier than those who were fed twice. When sheep are fed only once each day, the bigger, fatter sheep will eat until they are full and then move away from the feed to ruminate and digest their intake, leaving the rest of the feed for the smaller sheep who might be less aggressive around food. Feeding less hay twice each day allows those bigger, fatter and usually more aggressive sheep to eat their fill at the first feeding, leaving less for the others. When the second portion of their ration shows up twelve hours later, those big, fat ewes will have digested most of their earlier intake and will once again push into the fresh feed, setting up a situation in which they get fatter, and the smaller, less aggressive sheep become thinner. I’ve seen this happen, and it definitely helped when we switched to once-a-day feeding.

Other studies have shown that sheep actually need to be fed only every other day — if the ration is sufficient for the intake level of each ewe. Personally, I like the routine of feeding each day, so we’ve never tried this other option. I have to check on the sheep at least once a day anyhow, so feeding them as part of that routine works well. It gives me the opportunity to observe each ewe as I set out her feed and to look for unusual behavior or movement as we interact.

The time of day for feeding is also up to the shepherd. I find that sheep don’t much like to eat after dark, so when I have the opportunity, I feed during the daylight hours between dawn and dusk. My own energy level is highest in the morning, so I prefer to feed at that time. There are weeks of the year when I am feeding out at least 650 pounds of hay per day, plus additional grain, and trying to do this after a full day of other activities leaves me wishing I wasn’t so tired. When I feed in the morning, I have no such issues and am ready to attack whatever awaits — including a dozen bales of hay!

Yet, this year’s shearing presents a bit of a feeding issue. Unlike most other years, this Saturday our shearer won’t arrive until noon or so. The general advice is not to feed the sheep before shearing, otherwise they can drop pellets on the shearing floor, and that can foul a beautiful fleece. Leaving the sheep without feed, however, is easier said than done — at least for me. Since we shear just a few weeks before the first lambs (which could arrive as early as Sunday, February 11), I feel uncomfortable leaving these heavily bred ewes without feed, even for only 24 hours. It doesn’t take much at this stage to cause the lambs to draw too much energy from the ewe, forcing her to burn too much fat to provide for their nutrition. When this happens, the ewe can end up with ketosis, pregnancy toxemia, pregnancy disease, or lambing sickness — essentially a disparity between the ewe’s nutritional intake and the nutrient needs of her fetuses. This is a problem better avoided than treated, since treatment is not always successful in turning things around. Once ketosis sets in, the ewe loses her appetite and thereby begins a downward spiral: she eats less and less, creating an increasing deficit between her feed intake and her nutritional needs (and those of her lambs). The disease can be fatal — death within 2 to 10 days in 80 percent of the cases — and treatment is time-consuming and often unsuccessful.

It is for this reason that I cannot withhold feed from my heavily pregnant ewes, regardless of what might happen to their wool on the shearing floor. My compromise is to feed them about 18 hours before shearing and then remove their uneaten feed about six hours beforehand. That allows them to eat most of their daily ration, and in the six hours before shearing, I’m hoping that most of their feed is digested and dropped into the straw of the barn floor. We then feed heavily immediately following shearing, both to make up for the smaller ration of the day before and to provide additional heat generation in their newly shorn condition. This has worked well for years now, and we continue to fall back on what works.

The flock has been on their late-afternoon feeding schedule since about Thanksgiving, and since this year’s shearing requires that I feed them late in the day on Friday, I’ve continued to maintain the schedule, as inconvenient as it might be for me. Right now, it is all about the sheep and their gestating lambs — I won’t jeopardize their health or well-being for the sake of pristine fleeces. But you can be sure that by Monday morning, the ewes will get their daily rations in the morning, when I am fresh and ready to tackle my busy day!

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