My feeding routine is rather complicated at this time of year. With all of the bred ewes merged into one group, the girls who used to reside in a separate high-nutrition group still need more and better feed than their lower nutrition flockmates. There are various ways to do this, but over the years, we have settled on bucket feeding the high nutrition girls for this short period of time between shearing and delivery. After that point, they all end up in the same group for lactation, with everyone getting the same feed level.
Bucket feeding is a bit more involved than simply pouring the grain into a trough and walking away. Not only do I have to measure out each bucket individually, but I also hold the bucket while each ewe eats her ration. The obvious drawback to this method is that it is time-intensive. On the other hand, there are also many benefits that, in my opinion, outweigh the time factor: I get to know each ewe individually (which is a great assist during lambing – particularly since this group is usually at least 50% ewe lambs), I know that even the smallest of the girls has gotten her full ration (rather than being pushed out of the feeder by the bigger girls), and I have time to spend in the barn getting a good look at the entire flock (allowing me to identify possible issues before they become critical problems). Overall, I’ve found that the benefits generally outweigh the drawbacks, and so each year, I end up bucket feeding some of the ewes for a number of weeks after shearing.
This year’s group is admittedly larger than it has been for years; I currently make up and feed out twelve buckets daily. Of that group, five are adult ewes and the other seven are ewe lambs—two of which are carrying twins. The ewe lamb of particular interest for this blog is Netty, a very dark Romeldale who carries a single and who will turn one year old on March 10, five days after her due date.
When I first began to feed Netty from the bucket, she was very shy. She didn’t really know me and very much disliked the fact that I hovered as she ate her grain. She would take a nibble or two from the bucket and then dash off, making me wander among the ewe flock, trying to find her as she ate from the alfalfa bales, hiding in plain sight. Like all of the ewe lambs, over time Netty has come to trust me. As the days passed, Netty began to eat her grain with less and less concern for my presence, and our hide-and-seek game slowly faded away. But then I began to have a different problem with Netty. As she relaxed and ate faster, knowing that the entire contents of that bucket were solely hers, she began to eat so fast that she began choking on her grain—almost daily.
The first time this happened, I didn’t think much of it. Ewes will occasionally eat quickly and gobble up too much of the dry concentrate. The grains stick together in the esophagus and, a moment later, the ewe is struggling for breath, salivating heavily and dribbling a combination of grain and saliva into the straw as she tries to force air either in or out. This usually doesn’t last long, but the struggle for breath is difficult to watch. I’ve occasionally dislodged the blockage using the Heimlich maneuver, but with Netty so heavily pregnant, I was concerned what the jolt would do to her unborn lamb. Instead, I decided to intervene only if she could not clear the blockage herself. Although it eventually cleared, the same thing occurred the next day, and then the next. I had to figure out some way to avoid this new problem with Netty.
Last week, I solved the problem. I knew the issue was that Netty was eating too quickly. While holding the bucket for her, it was obvious that she was shoveling her grain in as quickly as she could—much faster than any of the other ewes. There were only two ways I could think of to limit her consumption rate: either dribble in only a bit of grain at a time for her to eat, or put obstructions in the bucket that she would have to eat around. I chose the latter and found a bunch of rocks on the driveway outside the barn, adding them to the bottom of her bucket.
Now, when I measure Netty’s grain, I pour it into her bucket over the assortment of rocks that lie in the bottom. When she sticks her head into the bucket, the rocks prevent her from taking in too much grain at once—she must move the rocks around to find the kernels between and underneath. Instead of playing hide-and-seek with me, she now plays hide-and-seek with her grain in the bucket. And the game has solved her problem. Since the rocks were added to her grain ration, Netty has not had a single choking event.
I know from personal experience that Netty will outgrow this issue—by next year, even if she is once again among our “bucket brigade,” she will likely not choke on her grain anymore. For some reason, this problem seems to be a short-term issue when it occurs. For the time being, however, we’ve found a simple solution to what could have been a serious problem. Those rocks are saving Netty from herself.
Skirting progress: I’ve finished skirting all of the fleeces and am in the process of writing up descriptions, color-balancing the photos, and generally getting the notification email ready for our customers. I plan to release the notification email to our customers on Thursday afternoon, February 12th, most likely between 4:00-5:00 p.m., CST. It won’t be long now!