After we sheared last weekend, it was again easy to see the bodies that had been obscured by their loads of fleece. In the days since, I’ve been getting a good look at the condition of each girl (in sheep terms, this means how fat or thin they might be) and how big each looks in terms of the lambs she carries. Since all the pregnant ewes are now in the Sheep Barn preparing for lambing, both the high- and low-nutrition groups now share the same space — which means that bucket feeding has begun. Although I used to dump all the grain into two troughs for the entire group, each ewe in the high-nutrition group now gets a bucket of grain measured specifically for her. That has brought about some interesting observations — and Olympia is probably one of the most important.
We fed out the first buckets to the high-nutrition group immediately after shearing on Saturday. Among our many helpers that day, a number of them took a bucket and fed one of the thirteen waiting ewes. It was all pretty chaotic, and we were mostly focused on finishing so that we could go inside and have dinner. The one thing I remember is that whoever was feeding Olympia — and in fact, another person who was feeding Nelly — came to me and said that their girls weren’t finishing their grain. This was an important observation, because at this stage of gestation (Olympia is due March 10th), nutrition is critical — their nutrition must continue to increase now that they’re in their last trimester. I thought Olympia and/or Nelly might be shy and might not like eating from strangers, so I decided to go back out after everyone had left and finish feeding Nelly and Olympia. No problem.
Except, as it turns out, there actually was a problem with Olympia. Although she had been in the high-nutrition group for months, it turns out she has not been eating her share of the grain. Now that she is getting her ration in a purple bucket labelled with her name and number, I can tell what she does and doesn’t eat. I stand there holding her bucket, chasing away any interlopers while she eats, so I know exactly what is going on: Olympia eats very slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it is rather maddening!
Olympia is always eager to dive into her bucket when I bring it out — but she chews and chews constantly while her head is in the bucket. I often feed two ewes at a time with one bucket in my hand, one between my knees, and my free hand moving away any other ewes who become too interested. In fact, by the time Olympia finishes only half of her bucket, I have usually fed bucket rations to four other ewes. And after only about half of her bucket, she is satisfied and walks away. Trying to get her to eat all of the bucket contents is an effort at frustration, and I usually let her go after half. I then feed all of the other ewes and eventually go back to her to finish. Sometimes she does, but other times I need to come back out later in the day to allow Olympia to finish. My focus is on getting her to finish, and I’ll do what it takes to get there.
This points out one of the reasons why I take the time to bucket-feed the high-nutrition group during the last trimester. It does take a lot of time and energy, and many shepherds don’t have the patience for it. Yet I find that it really points out why the smaller, thinner ewes are in that condition. I usually find that they have a much softer temperament and are lacking the confidence or physical strength needed to push away the competing ewes during feeding time. As a result, when I trough-feed in the second trimester, they get much less than their share.
And when it comes to Olympia, not only is she soft-tempered but she’s also terribly slow at chewing. Although I constantly hear her chewing the corn kernels as I hold her bucket, she seems to make very little progress. I’ve started to think that my mother has been talking to her, sharing her opinion on the link between good health and chewing each bite of food at least thirty times! Olympia would be a star in food chewing! (For those concerned, I have checked her mouth and teeth to ensure that all is working correctly. She is just a slow eater, with no obvious reasons for this.)
Thankfully, bucket-feeding has pointed out Olympia’s feed deficiency in time, and I am working to correct things. Every day she is finishing a little more of her bucket in one sitting. We are increasing her grain slowly to avoid acidosis (an overload of grain when the ewe is not used to such quantity), but she has almost caught up with her high-nutrition flockmates. I’m not sure how to get her to eat faster, but as long as she is eating all that she needs for herself and her coming lamb, I’m happy. I see the daily time we spend together as an investment in the future: it won’t be long before she’s in labor, and if we have developed a bond of trust beforehand, this time and patience will all be worth it.