More about Christmas trees — feeding your flock

In Wednesday’s post I discussed where to find trees and how to select them. After making sure your selected trees haven’t been sprayed with flame retardant and are not sporting tinsel or ornaments, you’ve brought the stash to your farm and you’re ready to feed your flock. But first, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Sheep don’t like to eat anything that smells like manure, so it’s important that you not drag your trees over soiled areas or lay them on soiled bedding when either storing them or feeding them out. If we accidentally drop or drag the tree through manure, the sheep usually won’t eat that side of the tree.

To start with, I feed out one tree at a time to each group in our flock, depositing each tree onto clean straw or fresh snow near where the sheep bed down and tying the trees upright or just laying them on their side — either works. After one or two trees have been placed in the same clean spot, the area will become contaminated by the manure of the eating sheep and the next tree should go onto a new spot. I also try to never lay a tree directly in a walkway. The sheep will often continue to walk there, hopping over the tree and dropping manure into its branches, spoiling the whole thing for the rest of the flock!

Our flock enjoying a short-needled tree on a relatively clean spot in the field.

Our flock enjoying a short-needled tree on a relatively clean spot in the field.

It’s sometimes hard to get the sheep to begin eating the evergreen trees if they haven’t tried one before. The first tree might sit out there for weeks before there is much change in its condition. I usually recommend that people tie it to a fence or some other upright spot near the sheep resting areas until the sheep begin to eat it with interest. By tying it upright, it doesn’t become manure-filled. If the tree is tied in an area that the sheep frequent, eventually they will take a taste, then two, and finally they will begin to eat at the tree in earnest. Be patient. Even if they don’t eat a whole tree during the first season you try this, they have gotten a taste that will make them more willing to try another tree next year. When the tree gets dry, remove it and either put out another one or try again next Christmas.

Sheep learn what to eat by watching other flock members, so once a few in your flock develop a taste for evergreen trees, the others will be more likely to try it. In this way, the new lambs in any flock — even though they have never seen this type of tree — will quickly begin to munch at Christmas evergreens once they see their older and more experienced flock members helping themselves. Each new variety of tree is a bit different, however, and will require the older sheep to explore whether it’s edible. Now that we’ve been feeding all varieties of Christmas trees for years, our sheep will quickly strip most any tree fairly quickly, and the lambs are nibbling at them within days of the new variety’s introduction. Eventually, your sheep, too, will recognize the treat and begin eating them in earnest – and when that happens, you can dole out the trees based on the number of sheep in the group, with about one tree per dozen sheep or so, trying to offer a variety of types, if available.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when the sheep are done with a tree. They will seem to eat a lot more of some varieties than others, so how can you tell? After years of feeding evergreens to our flock, I’ve figured out when to change out a tree. In the long-needled trees with smooth bark, the sheep will eat almost all of the needles and will often strip much of the bark. It’s pretty obvious when these trees are done. With Scotch pines, the sheep will usually eat only about 25% of the tree, so if it’s been with the flock for a while and they’ve stopped eating it, you can remove it. (This lackluster enthusiasm is the reason why we don’t get many of these anymore).

In the shorter-needled varieties, the sheep will usually eat only the sides that are facing upwards, not the portion lying on the ground. When you can see the trunk all the way from the base to the top, it’s time to turn it over and allow access to the underside. When you can see the entire trunk, you can remove the tree. Yes, there will still be some needles remaining, but the amount of effort it takes to get a full mouthful of needles has dramatically increased, so the sheep have moved on.

Each full-sized Christmas tree of any of the well-liked varieties will replace about 15-20 pounds of hay by the time it is completely eaten and ready to be recycled. This means that not only will these trees provide trace nutrients, but they will also stretch your stored hay a bit. Sheep will only eat these trees as a portion of their diet, so don’t think you can fill the field with old Christmas trees and stop feeding out hay. Instead figure on the sheep eating the trees for, at most, about 20% of their daily intake — if there are enough trees available to allow all of the sheep access.

After feeding out Christmas trees for so many years, we’ve learned a lot. And it’s possible that I’ve forgotten something; so if you have a question, just ask in the comment section and I’ll see what I can do!

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