So, aside from the quest for a decent feeder for the sheep (see previous post), one that will reduce their propensity to waste hay as well as curb or eliminate the issue of vm, there’s also the quest to find a decently priced, good quality product to feed them, which dovetails into the feeder quest. Right now I’m using the hay nets I got from Equinets last year, which can work with the waste issue but can also be a nightmare with the vm issue, as it was last year with the brittle, choppy hay that made such a mess of their fleeces. It was good hay, but the feeding method wasn’t ideal due to its dry quality. This year’s hay isn’t quite the same problem, but of course there are others. I feel like I’ll never get it right.
I purchased a little over a ton of hay last year. With five sheep – three medium size, two small (though the two small ones were both pregnant) – a ton should have lasted me through the winter. Alas, it did not, due to the breakage issue and subsequent waste (not entirely the fault of the sheep), and I was buying bales by March.
This year, with nine sheep (no breeding plans this year, and four of the nine are barely 50 pounds), I purchased two tons of hay. I looked around in August and September, pricing hay as well as buying test bales from several sources. The local grass hays are usually about half the price of the eastern Washington bales, and I looked into them more thoroughly than I have in the past. The price is obviously attractive, but so is the “buy local” aspect of it. It just feels better to buy a local product, without all the shipping/hauling, as well as theoretically better and more natural health-wise. The local bales tend to be smaller than the monster eastern Washington bales (50-60 pounds compared to 80-100 pounds) so that’s appealing too (easier to handle). I purchased a local bale from a guy the next town over, and it looked green and leafy, but turned out to be quite stemmy. The sheep ate it up, but there was a fair amount of waste, with long, resilient stems like straw left in the feeder. Oh well. Another bale purchased locally was brown on the outside, but I held hope it was just bleached by the sun. But it was just as brown on the inside. It looked like what happens when you wait too long to mow your lawn, then cut it and don’t bag the cut grass, and it sits out there in blobs and turns brown. The sheep weren’t all that interested in it, and I ended up using most of it for bedding in the chicken coop (nest boxes and on the floor). Of course once it was in the chicken coop the sheep thought it a delicacy, and I found them out there eating it like it was a long sought, rare treat. Go figure!
I purchased a bale from a guy who hauls from eastern Washington. It wasn’t bad hay, with some brown spots in the bale (overbleached looking), constituting about 5 percent of the bale. His product (and price) was topping my list. The local feed store sells the best product I’ve seen, with consistently green, leafy bales of large size. The price is steep, but I’m coming to realize it’s not too overpriced. They’re a small feed store, and prices tend to be a little more there for all the products they sell, but their hay is an impeccable product. I had one bale last year that was bad – the farmer must have been growing in a river delta, and the bale was loaded with a sandy dusty dirt. I would pick up a flake of hay and the dirt would stream off of it. I took it back to the feed store and they replaced it without question. I like that kind of integrity, and also like supporting them. Because I’ve learned, too, that giving hay sellers feedback on their product generally goes over like a lead balloon. I found that out last year as well as this year, with the 5 percent brown bales. I don’t complain or accuse, but phrase it more as a question like “has anyone else noticed this —– with the hay?”
When I went up to get my hay feeder in September, I decided to try a bale of grass hay from a farmer/grower a few miles from where the slow feeder was made. It was third cutting grass hay, and green and leafy. A little softer than the brittle eastern Washington hay and about half the price. Sold! I negotiated with the farmer for a couple of weeks. He wasn’t keen on delivering less than 100 bales (I’d figured on about 75 to get me through to spring), and I had to wait until there was another delivery near to me. Finally, in mid-October, I had a garage full of hay. I moved the sheep to the pen full time a week or two later, and, sigh, they’ve been going through the hay at about twice the rate I’d anticipated, with waste out the wazzoo.
The hay I bought in September seemed much greener than what was delivered, and the waste is prodigious. The hay is stemmy and strawlike, and though some bales are greener than others, I’m going through an average of five bales a week, and hauling five or six wheelbarrows of “bedding” out of there every weekend. It’s so deep by mid-week that I can barely push open the gate to the pen, and it looks like a bale of straw was opened in there. I want to call the farmer and ask if maybe they accidentally delivered first cutting to me (they were out of second cutting hay by September) and the perhaps the other delivery that day got my third cutting(?), but I know that won’t go over well, however non-accusatory my questioning might be. So I’m chalking it up to lesson learned. The damage to the fleeces is less than last year, mainly due to the stemmy hay (though there is a lot of grass seed head too, I’m sweeping up dustpans full of it in the garage, which doesn’t bode well). But feeding with the hay nets it will always be an issue. I have my fingers crossed that this almost two tons of hay, which I’d planned to get me through to April, will last until February, when I’ll need to buy another ton, effectively making this a very expensive year for hay. There are no bargains, I guess. It’s supremely frustrating on all counts, and I’ve been trying to “let it go” and just take the lesson from it all (feeder and hay). It’s not like this is unique to me. As Sally said when we were discussing our mutual ongoing quests (and she has about 8 years on me, with regard to keeping sheep), ‘I don’t know why I should expect find the answer to the perfect feeder when shepherds have been trying to find the same answer for forever.’