Hay Woes 2012, or, The Ongoing Saga of Feeding Fiber Sheep, Part 1
(no, not feeding fiber to sheep…)
It was a beautiful day this past Saturday, a gift of sunshine on a weekend day in November. Northwest Novembers are typically considered the worst month of the year, weather-wise, so anything other than rain is a plus. It’s early yet, we still have Thanksgiving coming up (storms with power outages and flooding are not uncommon on that weekend), but still, Saturday’s sun was lovely. It was chilly, with a healthy frost on the ground (and thick morning fog, here in the fogtown of this river valley), but I’ll take a little morning fog and cold temps in exchange for sunshine and no rain any day.
My first chore of the day was to meet Sally, a fellow shepherd, with my latest acquisition in my Grail quest of finding the perfect hay feeding situation for the sheep. It’s a beautifully constructed slow feeder, made by a local craftswoman, and allows the sheep to eat with two of the biggest grail factors completely obliterated: no waste (insert angels singing) and no vm (shorthand for vegetable matter (i.e., hay bits) in the fleece). I have my fingers crossed that it will work for Sally, because I’m hoping someday it will work for me too.
Here’s the back story: I purchased the feeder in September, when I began feeding hay to the sheep while they were still in the tired pasture. After a late summer with little rain, the grass just wasn’t growing out there, and even with evening foraging excursions outside the pasture, they were hungry. The slow feeder is solid, well constructed with attention to detail, and though a little spendy, it wasn’t overpriced. It’s basically a box with a heavy grate that you put over the hay which allows the animals to pull hay out in mouthfuls, but prevents them pulling out great wads that then get dropped on the ground and wasted. I put it out in the pasture and filled it with hay and life was good. Great even. After a day, and the sheep gobbling up the hay like they hadn’t eaten in weeks, there was zero waste. I was amazed and delighted. I filled it repeatedly in the next few days, with the same result – no waste and happy sheep. I was doing the happy dance. Then I noticed Minnie (and occasionally Fergus) standing in the center of the hay feeder instead of eating from the (out)sides. She just leaped in and helped herself. I was a little concerned that she’d get hurt jumping out, possibly getting stuck in the grid that holds the hay down, but she leaped out with aplomb. Of course, as she spent time in there, munching away (maybe resting in there too?), she didn’t bother to get out when she felt the call of nature. I realized after a couple of days that there were urine soaked areas of hay (because no one would go near that hay) and even little sheep raisins (poop). Dang.
So the waste issue reared its ugly head again, this time due to soiling. I called the feeder’s maker, Brenda, and we discussed ideas. She offered to put up some vertical slats along the sides, sort of like headstalls, so the sheep could put their heads in between to feed, but it would hopefully prevent Minnie from jumping in. I made the trip back up to her shop – an hour’s drive – and she put on the slats. I was hopeful. I put it back out when I got home that afternoon, and by the next day, Minnie was back in, munching, peeing, and pooping happily from the center of the box. The box was getting stained and stinky and I finally pulled it out. Maybe when she gets bigger I can try again.
In the meantime, Sally emailed me. She’d contacted Brenda independently and had gone to Brenda’s shop to see the feeders. Brenda is a horse person, and designed the feeder with equines in mind, and the smaller sizes and modifications are only for other species (sheep, goats, llamas and alpacas). I’d sent her a photo of my sheep using the feeder and she shared that with Sally when Sally contacted her (I’d given her permission to use the photo for her ads). Sally recognized the sheep as Shetlands and asked Brenda who they belonged to. Brenda couldn’t remember my name, but remembered where I lived, and Sally deduced it must be me and sent me a note. She’d been my connection a couple of times, once when she was picking up a primo pasture seed from the dealer in Oregon and offered to bring up a bag for anyone interested in our area, and another time she offered to pick up a mineral mix sold by another Shetland breeder on the Olympic peninsula, since she goes over there regularly. So we knew each other via these connections (and the Shetland chat list).
I’m hoping the feeder will work for Sally. So far so good, according to the report tonight, and she is just as amazed as I was at the reduction in wasted hay. She has a small boy that she’s concerned will do the same thing as Minnie, but I think if the slats had been up from the start, perhaps Minnie wouldn’t have developed the habit right off the bat. For now I’m back to using my hay nets, a good solution for the most part, except for vm issues. Thankfully the vm problem is moot with the current batch of hay (like, 75 bales worth) I purchased for the winter. Unfortunately, the waste issue has come back into play. More on that in Part 2.