The chaos of feeding sheep

When people think of shepherding, they think of rolling meadows and gamboling lambs, ewes who nibble at offered treats and piles of lambs dozing in the sun. Most of that is part of my daily reality – but there is more. There is the chaotic and sometimes dangerous side of keeping sheep – and the majority of that has to do with feeding particular groups of sheep at this time of year. It gets a bit crazy!

I am currently feeding three different groups of sheep: the rams, who are getting grass hay, the unbred ewes who are also getting grass hay, and the adult ewes with their lambs, who are getting alfalfa hay and some grain. Each group has a different personality and their own issues that come with that particular sub-flock of sheep. The rams, for example, are pretty mellow guys since we select for calm disposition. The general rule of “always be aware of the ram and what he is doing” still applies, but they are generally pretty easy-going. I clean out their feeders and load in hay bales as they stand around waiting. As soon as the first bale comes out, they swarm the hay, each ram hoping to get the best parts of the bale. If it’s a sunny day, the boys might be in a celebratory mood, running at each other and head-butting together as I fill the feeders – kind of the ram version of a high-five. I just stay out of the way, and it’s all good. I seldom worry while in this group – as long as I keep my wits about me and don’t step into the middle of one of those rammy high-fives, I’m fine!

The low-nutrition ewe group on grass hay is a bit more intense. I am measuring out their hay to prevent them from getting fat, so they are eager to get their hay each day when I arrive. As I clean out the hay feeders, there are ewes coming to see what they might have missed from the previous feeding. On Monday, I leaned over to clean out the feeder as one of the ewes who was nibbling left-overs decided to get out of my way; we collided in mid-air above the feeder – her bony head into my left eye. This type of collision has happened multiple times over the years, so I was fairly certain that, like these many other times, it would leave no mark – but I was wrong. I ended up with a black eye that is now slowly fading. It is a bit surprising how hard their heads are, but if you get hit by a sheep’s head, you remember it for a while, whether it leaves a black eye or not!

The last group to be fed is also the most dangerous this time of year, since it includes all of the ewes who have recently given birth. These ewes are all lactating and suckling their lambs, so they think that they are starving, no matter how much hay I put out. They are each getting a ration of eight pounds of alfalfa hay plus about 2/3 pound of a grain blend – much more than any of them need according to scientific research. In fact, ewes at this stage in their productive life (lactation) only need an average of about six pounds of feed per day – well below what they are getting here!

Yet, this group is definitely the most challenging of the three. When I am out in the barn feeding, I must drop forty pound bales from the 17-foot stack of hay in the barn, then carry them across the straw-covered pen to load them into the feeders. As I walk, there are twenty-five “starving” ewes and their forty-one hungry lambs crowding around me, trying to snatch a bite out of the bale I carry. When I arrive at the hay feeder, there is inevitably a lamb standing inside, nibbling on the alfalfa leaves left at the bottom – while I stand there holding the bale in one hand, trying to shoo it out of the feeder with the other – all the while being pushed and pulled at by the crowd of ewes surrounding me and my precious bale!

As I fill the hay feeders, the crowd begins to dissipate, with a few ewes staying at each of the filled feeders. Most of the crowd does follow me, however, from hay stack to each feeder, with each new bale always being more interesting than the one previous. By the time I am carrying the last bale to its feeder, I likely have about fifteen to twenty sheep still milling about my legs, following me and trying to grab a bite before I can get it placed correctly and cut the twine off. There is no easy way to do this job – it just needs to be done!

Once all of the hay is fed, the ewes settle in to some serious hay eating. The barn is essentially silent as they fill their mouths with hay – and the lambs are doing much of the same. The feeders are designed with openings on the sides so that the lambs don’t need to fight their mothers to get at the hay. They can pull the hay through these side openings below where their mothers eat.

My chores are not finished yet, however. After I feed out the hay, I must still feed out the grain. We have set three twelve food grain troughs within the pen so that there is plenty of feeder space for each ewe and any lambs who might be interested. The lambs have their own hay and grain in the creep area where the ewes cannot go, but the feed offered to their mothers is always just a bit more interesting than what they get on their own. At some point after the hay is fed out, I must grab the bucket of grain and pour its contents into the thirty-six linear feet of troughs. If I don’t spread it out enough, then only a few ewes will eat all of the grain, so it is important that I spread it fairly equally – but all the while I am pouring, the ewes are climbing. They climb on the troughs, on each other, and on me, trying to get into the bucket that carries the grain. Anyone watching would think that they were starving – literally starving! Yet, I know this is untrue – they have plenty. They just want more! In the process, however, they push and shove and climb, creating bumps and bruises – mostly on me, but sometimes also on each other. It’s a loud, crazy scene that immediately calms when the last of the grain is poured into the trough.

Then suddenly, there is silence. Only the sounds of sheep quietly chewing their grain and then moving back to the hay feeders to chew more hay. The lambs take the opportunity to suckle, and I can sometimes hear the soft sounds of so many lambs sucking at the same time. I stand among them all, beaten and bruised, listening to the sounds of satisfied sheep, and knowing that as sore as I might feel, I will do it all again the next day and the next, and – as much as I hate the chaos – I will stand there at the end and marvel at how privileged I am to do what I do. I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.


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