What the hay?
After a cool and very wet spring (that followed an especially wet and waterlogged winter), summer hit us this weekend with a blast of tropical heat. My phone’s weather app is schizophrenic – 99 one minute and 97 the next. Next time I looked it was 102, and then updated to 94. ?! Suffice it to say it’s hot out there. I feel especially bad for the half dozen sheep I haven’t sheared yet. I started one last weekend and she was just too fractious – for her safety and mine. I haven’t had time since and it was way too hot this morning to try, but they are all doing okay by staying quiet and in the shade most of the day. I move them to the pen at night and fill the hay feeder – they ate a LOT of hay last night in the cool of darkness. And about that hay…
I’ve lamented here before about my many trees and shade (grateful for them right now, of course) and the shade being in opposition with my pasture grass growth. My pasture grass could use a lot of other help too (still need to do a soil test, but I’m 100% sure it could use a paycheck’s worth of liming), but I also have too many sheep grazing on it, especially given its overall weakness. Ideally I wouldn’t have more than 4 Shetlands on it in its current conditions of too much shade, lime deficiency, etc., for it to keep up and provide fodder for more than a month or so. My goal is to keep the flock number to 10 or below, and I’ve not always been completely successful at this. With the lambs this year, I’m currently at 22 (!!) sheep. While I love the sound of that – I would love to keep 22 sheep full time – and 12 of them only weigh 30- 40 pounds each right now, it’s just not feasible here. So even with 10 sheep, I feed hay roughly 10 or 11 months a year. They graze and browse a LOT during May through June, but hay is the primary food source once the May/June jungle growth stops at solstice.
So I buy the best hay I can find, on a weekly quest to find the greenest, leafiest second cutting orchard grass that I can. Every weekend two hay bales go into the back of my long-suffering old CRV. I’ve tried to buy a ton at a time and have it delivered, but that’s not worked out well. One year I bought a locally grown second cutting which looked great when I bought a couple sample bales, but when it was delivered, only about 10% was that nice. The rest was stemmy crap that the sheep wasted with abandon. That was $750 well spent – NOT. Another time I got some “nice” green stuff grown in eastern Oregon…that was loaded with mold and dust/dirt, and, frankly, was probably one of the triggers for my lung thing. So now I range out every weekend, finding a consistently good product at a feed store about 15 miles and a 30-minute drive away. Not the one 5 minutes away (generally a good product, but for a lot more money), or the one 20 minutes away (not consistently good). But any way you slice it, hay from eastern Washington is pretty much the gold standard here for quality/value. And it’s grown in an area with soils notably deficient in the trace mineral selenium. And that, I believe, is at the crux of the problems I had lambing this year.
Like all shepherds, I give my sheep free choice minerals (loose minerals are best for sheep, not a block to lick). This includes salt, of course, but also other trace minerals, including selenium but NOT including a lot of copper (some is important, but not at the rates of other livestock like goats and cattle, as too much copper is toxic to sheep). The sheep have a mineral feeder that is kept full at all times. About 18 months ago I needed more and purchased a bag of a well-known brand that I hadn’t used before. I poured it in the feeder and they nibbled at it. It’s red in color, and more than once I had a fright going out to check on the flock and had a sheep turn to look at me with “bloody” lips. They nibbled at it, but never seemed to nibble much. That’s all right, you don’t want them chowing down on it, but it wasn’t until I had these issues that I realized that that bag I purchased 18 months ago lasted much, much longer than it should have (and I still have some!). So they weren’t eating it as much as they should have, or needed to, and with their selenium-free hay, probably weren’t getting nearly enough of this important trace mineral. When I worked with the vet (and got the recommendation from other, more experienced Shetland shepherds) the first thing mentioned was that a selenium injection be given to my weak babies. And when I saw the dramatic results, it was a face palm moment. While it wasn’t outright White Muscle disease (at least not the acute symptoms) I believe the overall weakness I saw in several of the lambs, and even the birthing issues (C-Kerry’s weak, premature lambs, Pebbles’ very weak ewe lamb, and even the almost 4-hour delay between Duna’s twins’ birth, and her ultimate rejection of the second one), are likely due to this deficiency.
Once I figured this out, I purchased a new bag—and a different brand—of sheep mineral mix. Right away I knew it was a better product. It had the texture and odor I was used to, and, more important, the sheep love it. I cleaned out what was left of the red stuff from their feeder, and poured in about 3 or 4 cups of the new stuff. And had to replace the EMPTY feeder within a couple days! They were on it like white on rice, as the saying goes. After that first week the consumption has decreased to a normal level, but they love it and are actually using it as it is intended. More telling, the lambs are in it (before they were at weaning stage), and the one I see most frequently in it is C-Kerry’s ewe lamb, who was so weak for her first week that I was afraid I would lose her. She loves it more than any of the other lambs, but the other ones I see most frequently eating it are also the ones I was most worried about as newborns. Go figure and Nature knows best. And, of course, lesson learned.
As a Shetland shepherd, I know my sheep are thrifty, easy keepers. They are hardy and tough, and can survive and produce good wool without being coddled with daily grain or a fancy barn. My sturdy little flock is no exception, and survived even my ignorance in this vital nutrient. I had a lot of firsts with this lambing season – first premies, first time tube feeding, first full-on rejection (likely also due to the mineral deficiency) and first bottle baby. I knew they weren’t eating a lot of their minerals, but didn’t know that could be such an issue. I didn’t know any better. But now I do. They say shepherds never stop learning, and after 7 years of shepherding these amazing little woolies, I can say that’s definitely true. Thankfully, my resilient wee beasts survived my ignorance.